Acupuncture Makes you Pregnant? (Update)
Today in the bbc news online site, there’s an article titled “Acupuncture ‘boosts IVF chances’“.
At first glance it appears to give strong support for the use of a medical intervention that supporters claim can cure any ill by unblocking undetectable energy flow along undetectable meridian lines. But like most news articles that trumpet a study that ‘finally’ proves the effectiveness of a highly implausible (yet popular) treatments, the referenced study has obvious problems that even a non-scientist can see.
The first problem is that it’s a [[meta study]]. The fact that it’s a meta-study should make you skeptical right from the start. It means that there’s no new data, but instead, a bunch of other sources of data are pooled together to try to get a stronger conclusion. This technique is often used to ‘prove’ other forms of nonsense like intercessory prayer. Which studies are included? Are all the included studies of the same quality? Are all the studies looking at the same thing? The person that designs a meta-study may inadvertently introduce a bias in the results by selecting which studies to include. A meta-study is no replacement for a large and well done study. And so far, all the properly done studies show a negative effect for acupuncture.
From the article:
Here, there was no evidence of any extra benefit from acupuncture, suggesting that offering the treatment in Europe might not offer as great, or any, increases in success rates.
It turns out that most of the studies included were from China. A country known for strongly believing in acupuncture. This does not give one confidence in the reliability of the study. If only the people in the Chinese studies saw a benefit, and the Europeans didn’t, then what is more likely: acupuncture works only on Chinese people, or that the studies from China were slightly flawed in some way, perhaps influenced by their bias?
Perhaps it was the strong belief in acupuncture in China that made the difference. Perhaps the placebo effect was stronger in China?
Thankfully, the article introduces a skeptical caveat right at the end:
In addition, a leading researcher into alternative treatments, Professor Edzard Ernst, from the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth said he was dubious about the reliability of acupuncture trials from China.
He said: “On the face of it, these results sound fantastic. I would, however, be very cautious as much of the observed effect could be due to a placebo response.
“IVF may not seem to be “placebo-prone” but it probably is: if women expect it to be helpful they are more relaxed which, in turn, would affect pregnancy rates.”
But I bet most readers only pay attention to the headline.
Update: Looks like the folks at sciencebasedmedicine.org don’t talk to each other! Two consecutive blog postings have addressed this issue: