acupuncture – a gullibility tax?


I’m writing this in a city with lots of hipsters and believers in alternatives of all sorts. This post could generate some static, so I’ll ward off any negative responses by wearing a protective amulet. Egyptians used magic amulets for thousands of years, so they must work. It’s ancient wisdom, dude.

Hey readers, I’m no stranger to paying a gullibility tax. For example, I used to buy and take echinacea to prevent colds. We now know that, at best, echinacea  might reduce the severity of a cold. No prevention. If you want to spend your money on the stuff, go ahead and pay the tax. I did. 

The same seems to be true for acupuncture. There was a time in recent history when this needle treatment was regarded as an amazing, drugless pain reliever and health restorative. There was even a highly misleading demonstration of the practice being used during open-heart surgery. It really was used in the operating room, but, oops, standard surgical anesthesia was used at the same time. It’s worth remembering, too, that you can inject a person with plain water, tell them it’s a painkiller, and many or most will feel relief.

If you have the impression that now acupuncture is taking its rightful place as a common medical treatment, you are partially right. It is frequently used for pain, fatigue, and so on, but that’s not its rightful place. It’s place is next to the word placebo. After thousands of studies and very mixed results, the final word is somewhere between “maybe” and “no.” If there is any result at all, it’s small. I’m not claiming to be a statistician or a medical professional, I’m just looking at what’s out there. If there was something significant going on,  there would be a stronger signal emerging from the data, but that’s not happening.

It’s also been discovered that the same beneficial effect is achieved when you poke a person with a toothpick. When fake acupuncture is as good as the real thing, that’s a red flag. And knowing that toothpicks work just as well, who would choose to have needles inserted in their skin? You can also totally ignore the traditional “energy meridian” lines or points, and still get the same effect. I highly recommend this article that includes some interesting history of acupuncture’s use in China, covers the basics very well, and addresses the typical arguments pro and con. 

Go for acupuncture if you have unlimited money and time to spend on healthcare that doesn’t do much. There have been a few instances of infections from dirty needles, but if you select a good practitioner, acupuncture probably won’t hurt you. You aren’t damaged unless you have a serious health problem and you choose this instead of real treatment. Then you’ve gone beyond gullibility taxes and into serious danger

Notes to acupuncture users and providers:

Yes, I could be wrong, but the preponderance of evidence is with me. There’s quite a bit of it now.

I know that it’s been used for centuries. Did you know that bloodletting was practiced for 2,500 years? Want to try it?

Yes, I know there are organizations and MDs that endorse the practice, and that some insurance programs cover it. This doesn’t bestow actual benefits.

Yes, I know it worked for you and your friends. Placing a warm, purring cat on the problem area would probably work, too.

Note to the sellers of aspirin and other pharmaceuticals:

Please send my pay-off check. I deserve a piece of the Big Pharma pie now, right?

P.S. Remember that I’m wearing a protective amulet (much like the one worn by Dr. Strange).  And remember that I’ve been down that gullible road, too, on more than one occasion. Who knows? Maybe my belief in the miraculous revivifying power of dark chocolate will go down in flames, too.


More reading, if you want it.
The Wikipedia entry actually gives a balanced overview: check the “Effectiveness” section and its references.
Why acupuncture is giving sceptics the needle
The largest “randomized” acupuncture study ever done: why did they even bother?


3 thoughts on “acupuncture – a gullibility tax?

  1. gl.

    it feels like all the people i work with believe in acupuncture and it drives me crazy. I’m in the “Go for acupuncture if you have unlimited money and time to spend on healthcare that doesn’t do much” camp, i guess.

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