What Acupuncture Can Teach Us About Science

It turns out acupuncture works. It's not a placebo, and it's not a scam. It's a technique with documented efficacy.

I have little to say about the evidence involved, as I do not conduct such studies, but I do have two questions that I think need answering: Why did it take us so long to "discover" this, and why was there so much hostility among scientists toward even conducting these experiments?

A headline from The Atlantic tells the story: "Biological Implausibility Aside, Acupuncture Works."

The hostility came from the fact that acupuncture has no known causal mechanism, leading to an assumption that "we don't know how it would work; therefore it must not."

To an extent, this is a sensible approach to take. Given the thousands of potential hypotheses out there that don't conform to the way we believe the world works, why would we spend time investigating them instead of other more likely ideas? As a time management strategy, going with what you expect to work makes sense. The trouble is that, taken past a certain point, the notion of being hostile to an experiment because of your preconceived notions about the way the world works is as anti-scientific an approach as can be imagined.

This becomes particularly pernicious when the issues in question are championed by people outside the realm of what is socially acceptable in science -- a category that isn't supposed to exist but that self-evidently does. Even after we've read our Thomas Kuhn (and have sighed at how many active scientists refuse to think philosophy has anything to offer them), how do we make it easier for experiments with acupuncture to proceed while keeping climate change skeptics from tying up our labs and resources with endless experiments designed only to serve a political end?

This is a problem the scholars at Saybrook University know well. The faculty who founded the College of Mind-Body Medicine (now the School of Mind-Body Medicine) were some of the first researchers to get prestigious grants to study phenomena that, for decades, medical science refused to acknowledge existed. The techniques they are pioneering -- from using guided imagery to help cancer survivors to using biofeedback and meditation to reduce high blood pressure -- received the same kind of hostility acupuncture did (and still does) from the "respectable" scientific community, only to be even more clearly validated when the data were finally collected and examined.

The good news is that there is a culture change sweeping through Western medicine: recognition that the mind and body are connected in ways that the last generation's textbooks refused to acknowledge, and that better patient care requires integrative approaches to health.

The bad news is that the basic hostility to techniques that don't fit the old conceptual model is still very active and entrenched. I believe it begins all too often in our graduate curricula, where scientific imagination is frequently seen as an attack on received wisdom.

The solution, I think, comes from having humility in the face of our theories, and from giving our students a little more room to graze off the ranch, where they are likely to be wrong in useful ways and have the potential to teach us something truly new. The world is still a more interesting and undiscovered country than we have yet realized, and there is still plenty of room for it to surprise us. To the extent that this gives some shelter to opponents of climate change and evolution, we must be cautious, but it is also essential to conducting good science -- science able to ask questions that don't fit with its preconceptions.

If we want science to advance, we need to give it room to grow, and that means room to conduct experiments that are rigorous and well-developed but on the cutting edge. The benefits outweigh the inconvenience, and the truth itself may often prove inconvenient.