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Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers

Argument # 19: Alternative medicine and remedies have no scientific basis. All claims of their effectiveness are due to placebo effect or coincidence. 


This is a very presumptuous statement and a rush to judgment.  It basically presumes that if we don’t understand how or why something works, then it must be due to chance, the placebo effect or the person’s own imagination.  Since we don't know everything there is to know about the body and mind, why should we assume that only what we understand is real and the rest is superstition?  There are already many functions, mechanisms and processes of the body and mind that we don't fully understand.  Some examples of these are photographic memory, the ability of people with autism to perform lightning mental calculations, extraordinary and gifted musical aptitude in child prodigies, certain mental disorders, dreaming, aging, consciousness itself, etc.  Now if everything we didn’t understand was due to superstition, then nothing would have really worked until we understood how it worked, which is ludicrous and almost anything in nature can prove that wrong.  Likewise, we still don’t understand why women who live together tend to menstruate in the same cycles either, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not true.  Just because we don’t understand why something works, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work.  Reality does not conform to what we are able to understand.  There are not two strict categories where either 1) we understand it, or 2) it’s just a placebo effect.


The important thing is that if an alternative treatment works, then we should try to understand how and why it works, rather than trying to put it on the same significance level as placebos.  Understanding the mechanism behind the placebo effect is important, as it teaches us more about the mind/body connection.  Marcello Truzzi, one of the founders of CSICOP (who broke away from it later due to its rising fanaticism), has emphasized this to me before.  Michael Talbot also pointed out in The Holographic Universe: (page 91)


“We now know that on average 35 percent of all people who receive a given placebo will experience a significant effect, although this number can vary greatly from situation to situation.  In addition to angina pectoris, conditions that have proved responsive to placebo treatment include migraine headaches, allergies, fever, the common cold, acne, asthma, warts, various kinds of pain, nausea and seasickness, peptic ulcers, psychiatric syndromes such as depression and anxiety, rheumatoid and degenerative arthritis, diabetes, radiation sickness, Parkinsonism, multiple sclerosis, and cancer.”


Besides, many alternative medicine practices are based on the power of thought and visualization.  For those, a case can be made for the validity of the mind over matter theory since labs like Princeton’s PEAR research labs have pretty much proven that micro-psychokinesis exist.  Even before this, an abundance of medical research already proved that a mind body connection exists far deeper than we had thought.  In fact, studies have been done to prove the power of mental visualization techniques over the body.  For example, Dr. O. Carl Simonton, a radiation oncologist and medical director of the Cancer Counseling and Research Center in Dallas, Texas, did the follow study described by Michael Talbot in The Holographic Universe: (page 83)


“In a follow-up study, Simonton and his colleagues taught their mental imagery techniques to 159 patients with cancers considered medically incurable.  The expected survival time for such a patient is twelve months.  Four years later 63 of the patients were still alive.  Of those, 14 showed no evidence of disease, the cancers were regressing in 12, and in 17 the disease was stable.  The average survival time of the group as a whole was 24.4 months, over twice as long as the national norm. (Footnote 1) ……. Simonton has since conducted a number of similar studies, all with positive results.


Footnote 1 from back of book:

Stephanie Matthews-Simonton, O. Carl Simonton, and James L. Creighton, Getting Well Again (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), pp. 6-12.”


Although there are plenty of quack things in alternative medicine today, the fact is that certain types of alternative healing practices have already been proven to work.  Skeptics are often misinformed on these.  One strong example is Acupuncture.  When first introduced in the west, it was thought to be superstition and only due to the placebo effect.  However, as it was more and more commonly practiced, doctors and the public came to realize that there was something to it after all.  In fact, the American Medical Association now says that acupuncture is an effective form of treatment.  There are also plenty of studies to support this.  Michael Talbot describes some of them in The Holographic Universe: (page 113-116)


“Although still controversial, acupuncture is gaining acceptance in the medical community and has even been used successfully to treat chronic back pain in racehorses.


In 1957 a French physician and acupuncturist named Paul Nogier published a book called Treatise of Auriculotherapy, in which he announced his discovery that in addition to the major acupuncture system, there are two smaller acupuncture systems on both ears.  He dubbed these acupuncture microsystems and noted that when one played a kind of connect-the-dots game with them, they formed an anatomical map of a miniature human inverted like a fetus (see fig. 13).  Unbeknownst to Nogier, the Chinese had discovered the "little man in the ear" nearly 4,000 years earlier, but a map of the Chinese ear system wasn't published until after Nogier had already laid claim to the idea.


The little man in the ear is not a just a charming aside in the history of acupuncture.  Dr. Terry Oleson, a psychobiologist at the Pain Management Clinic at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine, has discovered that the ear microsystem can be used to diagnose accurately what's going on in the body.  For instance, Oleson has discovered that increased electrical activity in one of the acupuncture points in the ear generally indicates a pathological condition (either past or present) in the corresponding area of the body.  In one study, forty patients were examined to determine areas of their body where they experienced chronic pain.  Following the examination, each patient was draped in a sheet to conceal any visible problems.  Then an acupuncturist with no knowledge of the results examined only their ears.  When the results were tallied it was discovered that the ear examinations were in agreement with the established medical diagnoses 75.2 percent of the time. (Footnote 72)


(In the book, a diagram of a fetus shape in the ear is here)


(Figure 13 The Little Man in the Ear.  Acupuncturists have found that the acupuncture points in the ear form the outline of a miniature human being.  Dr. Terry Oleson, a psychobiologist at UCLA's School of Medicine, believes it is because the body is a hologram and each of its portions contains an image of the whole.)


Ear examinations can also reveal problems with the bones and internal organs.  Once when Oleson was out boating with an acquaintance he noticed an abnormally flaky patch of skin in one of the man's ears.  From his research Oleson knew the spot corresponded to the heart, and he suggested to the man that he might want to get his heart checked.  The man went to his doctor the next day and discovered he had a cardiac problem which required immediate open-heart surgery. (Footnote 73)


Oleson also uses electrical stimulation of the acupuncture points in the ear to treat chronic pain, weight problems, hearing loss, and virtually all kinds of addiction.  In one study of 14 narcotic addicted indiviuals, Oleson and his colleagues used ear acupuncture to eliminate the drug requirements of 12 of them in an average of 5 days and with only minimal withdrawal symptoms. (Footnote 74)  Indeed, ear acupuncture has proved so successful in bringing about rapid narcotic detoxification that clinics in both Los Angeles and New York are now using the the technique to treat street addicts.


Why would the acupuncture points in the ear be aligned in the shape of a miniature human?  Oleson believes it is because of the holographic nature of the mind and body.  Just as every portion of a hologram contains the image of the whole, every portion of the body may also contain the image of the whole.  "The ear holograph is, logically, connected to the brain holograph which itself is conected to the whole body," he states.  "The way we use the ear to affect the rest of the body is by working through the brain holograph." (Footnote 75)


Oleson believes there are probably acupuncture microsystems in other parts of the body as well.  Dr. Ralph Alan Dale, the director of the Acupuncture Education Center in North Miami Beach, Florida, agrees.  After spending the last two decades tracking down clinical and research data from China, Japan, and Germany, he has accumulated evidence of eighteen different microacupuncture holograms in the body, including ones in the hands, feet, arms, neck, tongue, and even the gums.  Like Oleson, Dale feels these microsystems are "holographic reiterations of the gross anatomy," and believes there are still other such systems waiting to be discovered.  In a notion reminiscent of Bohm's assertion that every electron in some way contains the cosmos, Dale hypothesizes that every finger, and even every cell, may contain its own acupuncture microsystem. (Footnote 76)


Richard Leviton, a contributing editor at East West magazine, who has written about the holographic implications of acupuncture microsystems, thinks that alternative medical techniques - such as reflexology, a type of massage therapy that involves accessing all points of the body through stimulation of the feet, and iridology, a diagnostic technique that involves examining the iris of the eye in order to determine the condition fo the body - may also be indications of the body's holographic nature.  Leviton concedes that neither field has been experimentally vindicated (studies of iridology, in particular, have produced extremely conflicting results) but feels the holographic idea offers a way of understanding them if their legitimacy is established.


Corresponding footnotes from back of the book:

72.  Terrence D. Oleson, Richeard J. Kroening, and David E. Bresler, "An Experimental Evaluation of Auricular Diagnosis: The Somatotopic Mapping of Musculoskeletal Pain at Ear Acupuncture Points," Pain 8 (1980), pp. 217-29.

73.  Private communication with author, September 24, 1988.

74.  Terrence D. Oleson and Richard J. Kroening, "Rapid Narcotic Detoxification in Chronic Pain Patients Treated with Auricular Electroacupuncture and Naloxone," International Journal of the Addictions 20, no. 9 (1985), pp. 1347-60.

75.  Richard Leviton, "The Holographic Body," East West 18, no. 8 (August 1988), p. 42.

76.  Ibid., p. 45.”


An experiment described in Discover magazine (September 1998 issue) revealed that neurological evidence from MRI scans of the brain supported Acupuncture.  Here are some excerpts from the magazine, which you can read online at


“Cho's unexpected relief prodded his professional curiosity. As a physicist working in radiology, Cho develops ways to image the complex inner workings of the body; one of his inventions was a prototype PET scanner around 1975. How, he wondered, could inserting needles into seemingly random points on the body possibly affect human health? So he decided to take a closer look, and what he found astounded him. While sticking needles into a few student volunteers, he took pictures of their brains and discovered that by stimulating an acupuncture point said to be associated with vision-but that is nowhere near anything known to be connected to the eyes-he could indeed trigger activity in the very part of the brain that controls vision. There just might be something to this acupuncture thing, he figured……………


To test that premise, Cho strapped student volunteers into an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine. While standard MRI provides static cross-sectional pictures of structures in the body, functional MRI goes further to reveal how those structures are working.  It measures minute changes in the amount of oxygen carried in the blood, which is presumably a rough measure of glucose uptake by various tissues and thus a good indicator of which tissues are active; the results can be viewed as colorful fmri brain activation maps.


Cho first stimulated the eyes of the volunteers through traditional means: he flashed a light in front of them. The resulting images, as expected, showed a concentration of color-an increase in activity-in the visual cortex, the portion of the brain that is known to be involved in eye function. Then Cho had an acupuncturist stimulate the acupoint VA1.  In one person after another, the very same region of the brain-the visual cortex-lit up on the fMRI image.


As odd as it seemed, sticking a needle into someone's foot had the very same effect as shining a light in someone's eyes. And this was not the generalized analgesic effect, produced by the primitive limbic system, that was seen in the pain studies; this was a function-specific response occurring in the brain's cortex, the area responsible for such sophisticated functions as speech and hearing, memory and intellect.  Moreover, the magnitude of brain activity seen on acupuncture stimulation was nearly as strong as that elicited by the flash of light.


"It was very exciting," recalls Cho. "I never thought anything would happen, but it's very clear that stimulating the acupuncture point triggers activity in the visual cortex." To eliminate the possibility of a placebo effect, Cho also stimulated a nonacupoint, in the big toe.  There was no response in the visual cortex.


Next, Cho tried each form of stimulation over time, twisting the needle for a moment or flashing the light, resting, then repeating. As before, the fMRI images were remarkably similar for acupuncture and for light stimulation. The time-course study was also done using the three other vision acupoints on the foot. The results were again consistent: except in the case of VA2, each acupoint lit up the visual cortex exactly as the light stimulation had done. This time, however, Cho noticed something else. When the activation data were graphed to show the intensity of the response over time, he saw that there were two distinct reactions among the dozen volunteers. During the acupuncture phase, some showed an increase in activity, while others showed a decrease. In other words, in some people, oxygen consumption in that brain region increased, while in others, it decreased.


"I figured we must have made a mistake," says Cho. Repeating the experiment, however, he saw the same results every time. "Finally one of the acupuncturists mentioned, 'Oh, yes, it's yin and yang.'" Cho asked him which subjects were yin and which were yang, and without seeing the data, the practitioner correctly pointed out who had shown an increase in activity (yang) and who had had a decrease (yin) in 11 of 12 cases. "I don't know how to explain it," Cho says.


Like many preliminary scientific reports, Cho's small study raises more questions than it answers. Still, he has demonstrated new functional effects of acupuncture. "Classically, acupuncture was the ultimate in experimentation; people collected data for thousands of years," says Joie Jones, professor of radiological sciences at the University of California at Irvine and coauthor of the study. "They noticed that when you applied a needle in one position, it would have an effect in another part of the body. But the connection through the brain was never made.  With these studies, we've demonstrated that for at least some acupuncture points it goes through the brain."


Yet even if it does go through the brain, how does stimulating a specific point on the foot trigger activity in the part of the brain that controls vision? There is no explanation for that either, says Cho, although he suspects that the path is along the nervous system. If that proves to be true, it's probably not the same pathway by which acupuncture causes the release of endorphins, says Pomeranz. "That endorphins are released by stimulating certain types of nerves in fibers anywhere in the body, that's understood. But that there is a specific connection between your toe and your visual system is really bizarre.  That's really mind-boggling."


Despite the absence of clear-cut explanations, acupuncture's clinical results are attracting interest from mainstream medicine. A panel of independent experts convened last year by the National Institutes of Health concluded that acupuncture is indeed effective in treating nausea due to anesthesia and chemotherapy drugs. It is also helpful in treating post-surgical and other forms of pain. Moreover, the panel noted, despite the pervasive belief in the superior clinical effects of Western medicine, plenty of conventional treatments for chronic pain show the same success rate as acupuncture-and often with harmful side effects.


One of the more provocative acupuncture studies used SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) to record images of the brains of patients with chronic pain. That study, by Abass Alavi, chief of nuclear medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, measured blood flow to the brain structures that are suspected of releasing endorphins in response to acupuncture stimulus-the thalamus, hypothalamus, and brain stem. Comparing baseline images of people who were in pain with images taken after they received acupuncture treatment, Alavi found clear evidence of increased blood flow in the thalamus and the brain stem. He also found that treated patients felt less pain.


Like Cho, Alavi was not a believer in acupuncture or other forms of Chinese medicine before doing this study. "I thought acupuncture was more or less psychological, not an objective effect," he says. "I did this study just for fun. I figured nothing would show up."”


To read about studies that concluded that acupuncture had an effect beyond placebo, see this article in Natural News.


Some skeptics have admitted that Acupuncture may be effective for some things, such as pain reducation, but they maintain that the theory of chi and meridians on which acupuncture is based, has no merit.  Bob Carroll of The Skeptic's Dictionary emphasized this in his entry on Acupuncture.  What they don’t understand about chi though is that it not only works and gets results, but those using it also feel its effects too, the same way you would feel heat from a fire.  In fact, this was shown on one episode of Bill MoyersHealing and the Mind series.  Moyers himself experienced this firsthand.  A chi gong healer put his finger near Moyer’s arm and Moyer smiled and said he definitely felt the heat go into his arm.  (I too have had this experience when I was in Taiwan.)  In the same episode, a chi master was also shown to be able to remain stationary while lots of other people tried to move him. 


Chi practitioners can see and test chi at work just like we see gravity at work.  Chi has been used by martial artists, tai chi practitioners, and quigong practitioners, to heal, move objects/people without touching them, strike hard body blows with a light touch, remain stationary when groups of strong burly men try to move them, snuff out candles from across the hallway, and other feats.  While everyone supposedly has chi, learning to control it takes years, though some seem to be able to summon it naturally.  All a skeptic has to do to learn about chi is to visit a martial arts dojo where chi is taught and used.  If they ask, a demonstration of chi can be made either on them or one of the students.  I have done this myself and seen demonstrations such as masters sparring striking blows onto students (apparent by the painful grimace on the students’ faces) without barely even touching them, if at all.  I have also seen chi practitioners in Taiwan bend long metal steel poles with just their necks, and I inspected the poles afterward and they were made of steel alright. (I was told this was a common chi feat in Asia.)  One time in a dojo, I held chopsticks in my own hands while a student used the paper the chopsticks were taken out of, to break them. (I still have the broken chopsticks today.)  It would really be poetic justice I think, for a skeptic to feel the effects of chi firsthand J


In any case, the bottom line about alternative medicine/treatment is that it CAN work and it HAS worked before.  Now I am not one of those anti-pharmaceutical company people who believes in forgoing all pharmaceutical drugs in place of herbal remedies or alternative treatments.  One of the concerns of skeptics is that people may risk their lives by forgoing conventional drug treatments for alternative remedies instead.  This, they maintain, is the danger of alternative medicine. (Michael Shermer loves to tout that as his motivation for debunking)  However, I do not advocate that.  I think that they should be used in conjunction.  If one wants to try an alternative remedy that seems to work, he/she should in addition to prescribed medication given by a licensed doctor.


What skeptics don’t seem to get though, is that the common sense rule is that if something WORKS, then people will and have a right to use it again, until it stops working.  It’s simple sound reasoning to do what simply works, and all creatures since the beginning of our planet have done that!  So I find it odd that many skeptics are advising people to stop all alternative remedies even if they work, cure people, or save lives.  Here is an example of what I mean which says it all, from an article about Homeopathy (energy water) in Psychology Today (March/April 2004)


“Amy Lansky didn’t care that homeopathy is one of

America’s least accepted alternative therapies. After

nine months of homeopathic treatment, Max was a

different child: talkative, active, sociable and

popular. Under Melnychuk’s guidance, Lansky gradually

decreased his dose of Carcinosin, eventually

discontinuing it. Max continued to improve. By age

five, he was virtually indistinguishable from any

other kid. “He now sees Melnychuk maybe twice a year,”

says Lansky. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s cured.”


Max’s experience led Lansky to quit her job and study

homeopathy full-time. Last fall, she hung out a

shingle. “As a scientist,” she explains, “I recognize

that homeopathy is implausible. But I’ve seen it cure

my son.””

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