One of the most troubling aspect of this newspaper story — “I’d lost my baby then somehow fell pregnant thanks to acupuncture”– is knowing quite where to begin discussing it (although I know I should start by thanking @johnbirrane for tweeting it to me). The story appeared in the “Mothers & Babies” section of today’s Irish Independent. In short, it describes the experience of a 44-year-old woman who recently gave birth to her second child. The focus of the story is that she believes her pregnancy to have been assisted by acupuncture, as prior to receiving the treatment she had serious difficulty in conceiving successfully. While acknowledging that this news story concerns an event of great joy for the mother concerned, it has to be said that, as a whole, it consists almost entirely of specious concepts held together by spurious reasoning.
The first thing to note is that, according to the science to date, acupuncture does not assist conception in its own right. Virtually all the research on this area has looked at women undergoing IVF, most particularly those who receive acupuncture around the time of embryo transfer. The evidence that has accumulated from this work is diverse in quality and outcome, such that it is difficult to discern a clear effect one way or the other. However, some reviewers have tentatively suggested that acupuncture may benefit the process of embryo transfer during normal IVF treatment.
But the data are far from convincing. The studies do not adequately control for placebo effects. Furthermore, none of this research shows that acupuncture assists IVF by influencing reproductive biology. There is research to show that acupuncture assists women to relax and boosts their confidence during embryo transfer, which will likely benefit the overall success of fertility treatment. So at best, the effect of acupuncture on conception in these cases is indirect: it helps the administration of IVF. In any case, the woman in our newspaper story was not undergoing IVF, so none of this research evidence even applies to her. Instead, if it were true, the idea that acupuncture helped her to become pregnant stands as a medical miracle.
(Alternatively, of course, it could just have been a coincidence. Based on the tone of the news story, it seems the Irish Independent feels that “medical miracle” is the more likely explanation.)
The fact that acupuncture has little direct effect on biological processes of reproduction should not be surprising, given that the premises of acupuncture are far from consistent with the basics of anatomy and biochemistry. In its most general terms, the purpose of acupuncture is to use thin metallic needles to pierce the surface of the skin at nominated points and, in so doing, to redirect the flow of vital energy (“qi”) in order to balance the opposing life forces of “yin” and “yang”. This is done by intercepting “qi” at specific points of a system of energy-carrying channels, known as “meridians”, which are said to run through the body. The key component concepts of acupuncture (“qi”, “yin”, “yang”, and “meridians”) are not observable, measurable, or otherwise detectable, except to an acupuncturist. This generally would constitute a problem for any medical procedure. Another problem is that when tested using independent (i.e., blind) procedures, acupuncturists are generally poor at agreeing on where the “qi” is (i.e., in scientific terms their detection of meridians exhibits “poor inter-rater reliability”), casting doubt on whether it is really there at all. The most likely explanation for acupuncture effects remains the idea that it elicits a placebo response.
And of course, the overall reasoning of this newspaper story is flawed because tells us only about the experience of one person (albeit incorporating her testimony regarding some other acupuncture clients). Conventionally, standards of journalism require the checking of veracity of testimony against alternative sources of information that can be used as corroboration. This journalistic principle is all the more important when the claims made by a witness are at variance with the basic tenets of prior knowledge. After all, single witnesses can always be mistaken (or can sometimes even be lying).
However, the Irish Independent is not alone in failing to corroborate its sources in such stories. Apparently, when discussing alternative medicine, newspapers often feel they can overlook the need to double-check extravagant claims. This is particularly unfortunate because the claims seen in relation to alternative and complementary medicine are frequently highly extravagant, and are usually contradicted by extensively documented research. They are also often of great curiosity value to the casual reader, who may spend more time reading stories like this than ones concerning economics or politics.
Such double-standards of journalistic integrity not only serve to mislead readers about the nature of acupuncture, they also place doubt in readers’ minds about the degree to which qualities such as evidence and sound argumentation are needed in order to sustain a case. As such, this type of journalism does a great disservice to the public by undermining the entire basis of news reporting as a whole.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.