Lying with links

The web writing style, using links as references, is a bit different from conventional footnotes and while it appears to be authoritative you need to actually look at the links to see if that source supports the point being made.

Case in point: In the article Acupuncture: Demystifying an Ancient Practice, the author, Elissa Miolene provides a link to a study that sounds like it supports her point:

However, a 2007 NIH study said that of 5,981 patients suffering from long-term pain, the average success rate after acupuncture treatment was near 80 percent.

Sounds pretty decisive, doesn’t it but let’s see what happens when we click the link. This leads to a PubMed abstract titled Acupuncture for anxiety and anxiety disorders – a systematic literature review. Now I suppose one can define anxiety as a kind of pain, even long-term pain, but I think most readers would interpret pain differently. But that’s only the beginning of the deception. This is a so-called meta-analysis, i.e. not a study in itself but merely a review of other studies, but here are a few red flags:

All trials reported positive findings but the reports lacked many basic methodological details.

This is common in that the threshold of publishing studies, somewhere (there is a journal somewhere for any kind of woo) is low, but someone who does the meta-analysis is basically recognizing that some of the 14 studies fail (as most woo studies do) to use proper scientific methodology (or omit describing their methodology simply because they didn’t have any, all the usual faults of poor studies).

But this one is even bigger:

CONCLUSIONS: Positive findings are reported for acupuncture in the treatment of generalised anxiety disorder or anxiety neurosis but there is currently insufficient research evidence for firm conclusions to be drawn.

Ah, the old bug-a-boo of statistical significance and the usual hideout of woo within anecdotal data without sufficient sample size or unambiguous measurement of outcomes or proper statistical analysis. Positive findings but no conclusions, typical of woo.

This PubMed abstract is one of the relatively rare cases where the full-text of the study is freely available (unknown the usual hiding it behind paywalls). Reading the entire article doesn’t add much but very clear indicates this is all about anxiety and has nothing to do with “pain” (in the sense of the original article or as most people would use it).

btw: If you don’t follow my link to the original article and think my criticism of an anxiety study as a proxy for pain study is misleading, here’s the opening paragraph, clearly addressing physical pain:

I was prepped for what was about to happen, but as soon as I felt the acupuncturist’s hands on my back, my body instinctively recoiled. I braced myself. I’ve never broken a bone in my body—bee stings, bruises, and shots were the closest I’ve come to real pain.

Now, of course, a careful reader of my post will recognize this is a comment about the pain of the acupuncture itself, not acupuncture as a treatment for pain. In fact the article is short on much about why one would even use acupuncture and long on merely describing it is a cool and a growing trend, but we get some clue from:

The reason for the high volume of patients lies in the fact that acupuncture can be used for conditions both mental and emotional, along with physical ailments related to digestive issues, pain, nausea, respiratory complaints, reproductive issues.

Now we get the cast-a-wide-net typical of woo. Yes, Miolene is now talking about unnamed mental/emotional conditions (could, but doesn’t explicitly, cover anxiety), but the laundry list of physical ailments certainly isn’t supported by the study.

In short this is a typical purely opinion (fact-free) article that uses minimal research (a quick search of PubMed can find more studies than the one mentioned, this is lazy authorship) BUT does embed the link with a false description of what is linked to. IOW, the author may not have read the study but certainly doesn’t expect you to read it but wants that impressive bit of blue text to convince you there is some evidence about the opinion claims in this article.

So beware. Read the references, especially links (since that is usually easy). The falsehoods in most woo (and generally also rightwingnut stuff) are readily apparent if you’ll merely be just a bit skeptical (and if you’re gullible, say goodbye to your hard-earned money to all the quacks out there) and do your homework. Your health is important, don’t let your normal Internet 30-second attention span lead you to false information. It could be more than merely wasting your money on useless procedures, it might be your life!


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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