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December 15, 2008

Reality-based community
Posted by Patrick at 08:11 PM * 90 comments

Barack Obama, 15 December 2008, while naming Stephen Chu as energy secretary, Lisa Jackson as EPA head, and Carol Browner to head a policy council coordinating climate, environment, and energy issues:

“My administration will value science. We will make decisions based on facts.”

Blah blah he’s imperfect blah blah political realism blah blah, but it’s an incredible relief to hear a President say that science and facts matter.

Comments on Reality-based community:
#1 ::: SeanH ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 08:28 PM:

Is Dr Chu the first Nobel Prize-winner to be made a Cabinet member in the USA?

Americans may also rejoice in beating Canada in the valuing-science stakes; Canada's Science and Technology Minister is a chiropractor and acupuncturist. Chuck homeopathy in there and you're on your way to a full set.

#2 ::: Dena Shunra ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 08:43 PM:

A couple weeks ago I realized the huge relief I felt about Obama's Saturday address: he didn't sneer at me.

The content of his speech mattered less than that fact. I believe that sneering is understood by all humans in all cultures as a gesture of disrespect. Having an executive who doesn't rub the lack of respect into his constituency? This was a new feeling for me, as I only moved back to the States in 2001.

#3 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 08:47 PM:

Boy howdy, that's nice to hear. Welcome back, reality. We've missed you.

#4 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 08:55 PM:

SeanH #1: Strictu sensu no, since the president presides over the cabinet and President Theodore Roosevelt received the Nobel Prize for Peace back in 1906.

#5 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 08:58 PM:

Is Dr Chu the first Nobel Prize-winner to be made a Cabinet member in the USA?

Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 (shared with Le Duc Tho) and continued serving as Secretary of State under Nixon and Ford until 1977.

And for Patrick's original post: word.

#6 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 09:28 PM:

Whoo-hoo! "'Got you to say it. Now gonna make you do it.'"

#7 ::: SeanH ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 10:16 PM:

Fragano Ledgister and Alex Cohen, my gratitude is tempered only by the fear that the Making Light Expertise Array might be turned to ignoble ends.

Modified, though: have any winners of Nobel Prizes other than Peace* served as members of a USA Cabinet, and has anyone been appointed to Cabinet after receiving a Nobel (since both Roosevelt and Kissinger won theirs while they served)?

And regarding Obama, did anyone else learn the term President-Elect during this interregnum? I wasn't familiar with the term; then again, I wasn't particularly politically aware when Bush won in 2000, and in the UK the government changes hands instantly, utilising modified kingon technology.

*the easy one

#8 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 10:56 PM:

SeanH, that was nicely done. A dual-fandom pun.

I knew President-Elect, but then I was hyper-politically-aware (in the U.S.) from the time I was about 10.

Blah blah he’s imperfect blah blah political realism blah blah, but it’s an incredible relief to hear a President say that science and facts matter.


#9 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 11:31 PM:

Sean @7
"modified kingon technology"??

Do you mean Klingon? And if so, what does that mean? I didn't think the UK worked that way.

#10 ::: SeanH ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 11:38 PM:

Magenta @9: The government of the United Kingdom has consistently denied possession of Klingon technology.

"Kingon" is a half-remembered Pratchett (I think) reference. Discussing the latest research of (again, I think) Leonard of Quirm, the theory goes that since, on the death of a king, the eldest son instantly becomes king, some subatomic particle ("kingon") capable of instantaneous travel must be responsible. I believe the next stage was to try and send messages via kingon, modulating the frequency by carefully torturing a small king. The analogy to Westminster should by now be thoroughly obfuscated and we can all move on.

#11 ::: Wirelizard ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 11:41 PM:

Currently it's queenon technology, really.

It's a Pratchett joke, from one of the feetnotes in Mort. - second entry there.

#12 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 11:52 PM:

SeanH @7: Yes, the term "president-elect" has been around for a while. It's possible that you're more aware of it now because Obama has been more active during the interregnum than is typical.

As for reason and facts: when giving a talk at Google earlier this year, Obama stressed the need to make decisions based on "reason and facts." Of course, this was to an audience friendly to this idea. But here's an excerpt from his "call to renewal" speech from a few years ago, to a group of evangelicals, that expresses a similar idea:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons [this is only an example; he's pro-choice], but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example.

We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.

Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God's test of devotion.

But it's fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.

#13 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2008, 11:52 PM:

I knew president elect. I think, to amplify, Patrick is correct, no one else has been, made a member of the cabinet (and I don't think being president counts a being a member of the cabinet, since the job of the cabinet is to adivise the president, and act as his agent in the areas to which they are assigned). The were members already, and stayed on.

#14 ::: SeanH ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 12:07 AM:

Janet Lafler @12: Wow. I expected a lot of things from this Presidency: a President who understands race, class, compromise, principle. But I'm amazed that, along with all that, the USA now has a President who's read Fear and Trembling.

#15 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 06:28 AM:

At the end of Season 3 of Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies has a character who calls himself "President-Elect of the United States". Unfortunately, internal evidence indicates that the story is taking place in June. I still wonder what he was thinking when he wrote that.

#16 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 07:01 AM:

In theory, any American who's sat through basic civics classes in grammar and high school should know the term President-Elect. However, there's all that much more important knowledge to use up brain storage space, like sports trivia, details of celebrity lives, and conspiracy theories about the Clintons and Obama's secret Muslim faith.

#17 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 07:53 AM:

What are these "civics classes" of which you speak? Such quaint notions hain't been heard of 'round these parts in many a day. Someone else takes care of all that political stuff. Kids these days spend all their time texting to American Idol and playing bad music on my lawn. They don't need no politics.


all my students are now very aware of President-Elect Obama, even the type that didn't know who their senators were (admittedly, I find Bunning highly forgettable) or who was Vice-President the last eight years. Another good sign.

But on the "bad sign" hand, an overheard local radio ad: Robberies. Home invasions. Kidnappings. You can never know when it might happen. And with a new president about to take office who opposes your Second Amendment rights, now is the time to come on down to JOE'S GUN EMPORIUM!!! or something like that. Can I sigh in resignation and freeze in horror at the same time?

#18 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 07:57 AM:

I think I knew "president-elect" but maybe I just knew "daughter-in-law-elect." Bow, bow, etc.

#19 ::: steve buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 08:16 AM:

::sniff, sniff:: What's that smell? It smells like springtime. And why is it suddenly so bright in here? What's that big shiny thing up in the sky?

Welcome back fresh air and sunshine. How we missed you.

#20 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 08:56 AM:

an incredible relief to hear a President say that science and facts matter

It's my understanding that, one day during the campaign, Barack made a joke about Michelle's belt and about dilithium crystals.

#21 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 09:27 AM:

"Incredible relief" is exactly how I felt when I heard those words. It was as if I had spent the last 8 years in a hot, stuffy room, full of cigar smoke, and someone opened the curtains and the windows, and turned the fans on high.

Note also from the same press conference: it's clear that Obama understands the distinction between "science" and "technology". Now that's different.

#23 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 10:11 AM:

His Sec of the Interior Choice, Senator Ken Salazar, has experience as a government overseer of public land.

For the current dude, Dick Kemptorne, I quote Wikipedia : During his six years in the Senate, Kempthorne scored a "0" on the League of Conservation Voters' legislative scorecards every year except 1993, when he scored 6 percent on the basis of one vote against funding a rocket booster for the space program that environmentalists judged harmful to the environment. His overall LCV score for that period was less than 1%

Ken Salazar's score is a cool 100%.

Kepmthorne was in the hot seat when the Mines and Minerals Management scandal hit.

Salazar was an AG in Colorado. He's got experience prosecuting environmental crimes. By contrast, the Bush Interior Dept has been one massive environmental crime.

#24 ::: ianracey ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 10:20 AM:

David Goldfarb @15:

Considering that every indication up till then is that he's the actual President, I've always assumed that RTD was thinking that "President-elect" is actual just an archaic or florid way of saying "President".

#25 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 10:33 AM:

Apropos wirelizard @ #11: Joe Queenan has written Queenan Country. Puns like this should be relished.

#26 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 12:38 PM:

Serge @20: According to Leonard Nimoy, Obama knows how to do a Vulcan salute.

#27 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 12:48 PM:

Janet Lafler @ 26... I thought Obama was from Krypton, not from Vulcan. You know, it's really neat to know that our next leader is not only smart and appreciative of intelligence, but he can laugh, and not at the expense of others.

#28 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 12:56 PM:

Yeah, Obama's lack of anti-intellectual rhetoric is really striking by contrast with the Republicans during the last eight years, and many Democrats as well. (Remember Hillary's comment about economists?) And this is important--it's just not healthy to have a lot of our society actively hostile to smart people who've mastered a demanding field, on the "you ain't no gooder than me" principle.

It's important not to turn that into worship of some priesthood of experts--that can lead you off a cliff in a hurry. But there's a difference in approach between how you react to very smart experts in demanding fields, depending on whether you feel like you can evaluate their arguments and claims at some level. That depends on intelligence, background knowledge, mental energy (youth is a big win here), and having a network of experts in many fields upon whom you can call for discussion and explanation. Those are all things Obama seems to have. So maybe dealing with competing experts is something Obama is just more comfortable with than Bush was.

I hope that this continues, that maybe we can get rid of our cultural tendency to discount experts because they're not no gooder than us, and the awful political/PR strategies of trying to discredit scientific fields or science as a whole when we don't like the answers it's offering us.

#29 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 01:02 PM:

SeanH 1: Americans may also rejoice in beating Canada in the valuing-science stakes; Canada's Science and Technology Minister is a chiropractor and acupuncturist. Chuck homeopathy in there and you're on your way to a full set.

I don't think those all go in the same category. I'm personally very dubious about chiropractic and homeopathy, but acupuncture seems to actually work. Of course, I've had acupuncture but not the other things, and my personal anecdotal evidence is that it was highly effective. I admit, however, that the placebo effect works VERY WELL for me, in fact I've made it my business to see that it does. But I believe acupuncture is actually more broadly acknowledged as effective than the other two.

ianracey 24: Considering that every indication up till then is that he's the actual President, I've always assumed that RTD was thinking that "President-elect" is actual just an archaic or florid way of saying "President".

It seems likely that RTD is ignorant of the details of the American (US) political system. OTOH I don't really feel like I have the right to complain about that too much!

#30 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 01:13 PM:

albatross @ 28... It's important not to turn that into worship of some priesthood of experts

I doubt we'll worship at the altar of Paul Krugman. The thing is that the last 8 years were a time where, if 'they' didn't like the answers the experts gave, they either ignored the experts, or found experts who'd give them the answers they wanted to hear.

"We don't think it's a good idea to go to war (...) If we HAVE to go to war, this is not the way to do it." vs flowers (later shoes) thrown at the liberators.

#31 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 01:13 PM:

albatross @#28 and others--We've talked here at Making Light off and on about framing an issue, a la Lakoff. Fear of experts is yet another area where a lot of Americans have been carefully taught to think the way the Rightists would prefer. I think for this "expert" issue, the frame we need is "When you have X problem, you want to call on some who knows a lot about X--if you have plumbing issues, you want a plumber, not a brain surgeon, and if you need brain surgery, you want a brain surgeon, not an airplane pilot." Putting forward this notion I've found that even people who have issues about "people who might be smarter than me will look down on me" can get their minds around the idea that you do have real reasons to listen to someone who knows a lot about something, because if you fall back on someone who's just guessing, your problems become much worse. It can be used to fall back on the Classic Conservative (as opposed to the faux-conservative stand the Rightists are pushing, and have been pushing for years and years) notion of Taking Sensible Steps to Fix Things, because Taking Sensible Steps means doing things like careful planning before you act.

#32 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 01:55 PM:

I agree with Xopher; there is at least some clinical evidence for the efficacy of acupuncture in relieving nausea and some types of pain. The evidence isn't as robust as one might like, but there have been double-blind clinical trials with statistically significant effects shown.

#33 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 02:02 PM:

On the one hand, I'm as relieved as anyone else to hear that Obama is part of the reality-based community.

On the other hand, let's not forget that the very words we are taking such delight in are a terrifying threat to something like 30% of the US population. And those people have just been thrust back into what is for them the familiar and comfortable position of being the "religiously persecuted and oppressed" underdogs. Make no mistake, they are even now gearing up to restart the quest for takeover -- and they've got a lot of the MSM on their side, because their worldview happens to be extremely useful to the people who just want more money.

What we really need to be working on is eradicating the idea that science and religion are mutually incompatible and you have to choose one or the other, because that takes their public support away.

#34 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 02:51 PM:

Xopher @#29: I was fortunate to have a very good chiropractor during a time when my back was off-kilter from an old injury. He didn't peddle any of the stuff about fixing sinus problems or depression or whatever; he just was good at adjusting backs.

Nowadays my parents get the same kind of adjustments from their MD so I think the part of chiropractics that clearly works is being absorbed into mainstream medicine.

I haven't tried acupuncture yet but I'm thinking about it for pain management.

#35 ::: Nangleator ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 03:24 PM:

How do you run a double blind clinical trial for acupuncture?

I'm picturing one room where the patients are poked at with Q-tips, another room where fake accupuncturists stab needles into patients at random, another room where real accupuncturists wear blindfolds while trying to do their jobs...

#36 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 03:34 PM:

re 31: I don't think Americans are so much afraid of experts as they are suspicious of them. They are afraid of the government, and therefore they are afraid of government experts because they don't trust them. To a degree is is reasonable, especially inasmuch as they can't evaluate expertise. It's often excessive because of the paranoid character of left-right political interaction, which makes woo-woo conspiratorial ideas attractive.

I have to say that in all honesty that the only Nobel that really serves as a qualification for a cabinet post is the Peace Prize, for which you could be made Sec. of State. I'd choose an Nobel winner over an oil company executive for Energy, but a research scientist isn't a clear choice for running an agency.

#37 ::: kyubi ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 05:13 PM:


With "sham acupuncture": using a needle that telescopes into a handle, so that neither the acupuncturist nor the patient can distinguish between penetrating and non-penetrating needles.

Other approaches (blinded to the patient but not the acupuncturist) include inserting needles at non-meridian points and/or inserting them to insufficient depth.

#38 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 06:07 PM:

It's my recollection that jabbing people in the "wrong" places produces results indistinguishable from jabbing them in the "right" places, which supports the hypothesis that the placebo effect is the only effect and qi meridians are a load of hooey.

But then, I would have been inclined to believe that anyway, so that may be coloring my recollection.

@#33: As soon as religion stops making falsifiable statements, science will stop testing them and falsifying a large percentage. Until then, science and religion really *are* (to that extent) incompatible, and pretending they aren't helps nobody.

Some religions, like Taoism, don't (AFAIK) have much to say about the physical universe, or at least not much that's definite enough to scientifically test. But then, it's not Taoists who are trying to sabotage the science curriculum.

#39 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 06:34 PM:

How timely: Acupuncture Proven to have an Effect beyond Placebo, Harvard Study Concludes.

The data suggests that real acupuncture affects the brain differently than placebo acupuncture and is more effective than a placebo in reducing the experience of pain. When asked whether acupuncture is more than a placebo effect, Dr. Dougherty responded, "Yes, the study does show more changes in the brain during active acupuncture than during placebo acupuncture. Therefore, acupuncture certainly entails more than placebo effect."
They used fMRIs and everything.

Acupuncture is not homeopathy.

#40 ::: A.J. ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 07:10 PM:

regarding acupuncture,

I've heard one plausible physiological explanation for its occasional effectiveness, namely that accupuncture tends to involve stabbing trigger points. The latter are little bundles or nodes of tightened muscles, whose existence tends to shorten the muscle, causing nerve pinches and skeletal misalignment.

I haven't tried acupuncture, and I doubt there's any universal explanation for the effectiveness of various folk remedies -- but I can testify from experience that focused application of force in a handful of places can produce amazing results.

#41 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 07:50 PM:

I heard the beginning of this morning's news conference on the way to work.

It will be so nice not having an idiot for president.

#42 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 09:01 PM:

A.J., your link to trigger points is missing.

#43 ::: A.J. ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 09:25 PM:

Oops! It was just a link to the wikipedia page

#44 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 09:31 PM:

A.J., and trigger points often coincide with motor points, which are the points at which the motor nerve enters the muscle. They are, for example, good places to put the electrodes if you're using electric stimulation to make a muscle contract.

#45 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 09:54 PM:

It's great to hear that there we'll have science decisions based on facts again...

#46 ::: SeanH ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 10:21 PM:

Lexica #39: how exciting! While the "theory" underpinning acupuncture is clearly woo, I cheerfully withdraw aspersions on its effectiveness.

#47 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 10:36 PM:

Wingate@36 has something of a point, although a lot of technical Nobel prizes go to people who can get the best out of at least a small team. However, it occurs to me that there's another reason post--technical-Nobel-laureate politicians aren't found: the peace prize is usually given for a very recent achievement, while the technical prizes are given only after decades of subsequent work have proved the worth of the work that is honored.

#48 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2008, 11:48 PM:

"With "sham acupuncture": using a needle that telescopes into a handle, so that neither the acupuncturist nor the patient can distinguish between penetrating and non-penetrating need"

I'd think it'd be a dead giveaway when the sham needles fall over, and the real ones stick.

#49 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 12:47 AM:

Jon H. @48: I take it you didn't look at the link kyubi provided in post #37? The people designing the trials turn out to not actually be idiots.

#50 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 07:42 AM:

@#39, from the end of that article (which does not link to the paper):
This study was funded by The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

I look forward to independent confirmation by people who *don't* have this result as their preordained agenda. (This, of course, doesn't prove the study bogus; but any one study can show a false positive even without any kind of conscious or unconscious misbehavior, which is precisely why replication is important.)

The cynical explanation is that their placebo needles aren't very good and therefore people were able to distinguish them from the real thing (all it would really take is the *acupuncturist* being able to tell the difference, which could affect his/her confidence in the treatment, which could be subliminally conveyed to the patient).

A.J.'s explanation is interesting, though, if confirmed. It's possible that there's a legitimate part of acupuncture surrounded by a ton of woo, similar to chiropractic. If that's confirmed it's quite possible that mainstream medicine will coopt the part confirmed to work and leave the rest on the junk heap.

#51 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 09:39 AM:

A lot of the problem with chiropractic* is those chiropractors who claim to be able to fix everything from the common cold to clinical depression. Find one who sticks to muscle and bone issues, and you've got a very useful resource. My boyfriend had a shoulder problem that his chiropractor fixed for him after about 20 years of it bugging him.

*: Am I the only one who finds that a very odd word-form? It makes me think, "Chiropractic what?" every time I perceive it. If the people who do it are chiropractors, the technique should be called "chiropraction" or somesuch.

#52 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 09:58 AM:

The cynical explanation is that their placebo needles aren't very good and therefore people were able to distinguish them from the real thing (all it would really take is the *acupuncturist* being able to tell the difference, which could affect his/her confidence in the treatment, which could be subliminally conveyed to the patient).

I'd do it so that the acupuncturist and the patient never directly interacted. Set up a screen around the patient's head and have a third party convey information like, "OK, now she's going to do your right elbow" or whatever. I doubt such subliminal messages could make it through.

#53 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 10:38 AM:

A year and a half ago, a visit to a chiropractor made all the difference between being able to move normally and not. I stopped going when he did a lot of tut-tutting over the fact that my wife took pain medication following surgery*. That was actually my first exposure to the woo-woo, "nice hammer you've got there" proselytizing panacea apect of chiropractic practice; previously I'd always thought of a chiropractor as someone you went to when your back was out of whack, like you'd go to a dermatologist for an outbreak of psoriasis. For realigning your bones so you don't hurt any more, it works a treat. For making it possible to get through the day without wondering whether the world might be improved by your absence from it, it's got nothing on Effexor.


*I should have known; he had a poster in his office that read "We fill our bodies with drugs to hide the fact that we are DYING!!" (Wording may have varied slightly, but hand to God on the all-caps and multiple exclamation points.)

#54 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 10:57 AM:

39: interesting. And I have no reason at all to suppose that the research was flawed. But even so, that's one study, on twelve subjects. That's not even close to the degree of rigour that clinical trials for a new medicine require - those go on for years with hundreds of subjects and cost tens of millions.

Another point: this is by no means the only acupuncture study ever carried out! There are a lot of others - one in BMJ last year on arthritis pain, another in JAMA three years ago on migraines - which found no effect at all. People have been doing scientific studies on acupuncture since the 1970s. Sometimes they find a result, mostly they don't.

Now, what does that mean? Well, the results of the study linked were described as "significant" - which customarily means significant at the 0.05 confidence level. In other words, if there were no difference between acu and placebo, the chance of getting the results they got is less than 0.05.

But, of course, this means that if there is in fact no difference at all, and you do twenty different experiments, one of them is going to detect a difference simply by chance.
There have been easily that many acupuncture studies done.

Not to mention the infamous publication bias; journal editors have limited space, and understandably prefer interesting - ie positive - results. So, if you do those twenty experiments, only ten of them might get published - including the one positive result.

So, while "It's possible that there's a legitimate part of acupuncture surrounded by a ton of woo", it is also still quite possible that it is all woo.

#55 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 11:35 AM:

By the way, the NCCAM is one of the institutes of NIH. It's like having eye research funded by the National Eye Institute, or drug abuse research funded by National Institute on Drug Abuse (rumored to be changing the name to "National Institute of Diseases of Addiction"). NCCAM is supposed to fund research into alternatives and complementary medicine.

Also by the way, veterinary acupuncture has shown some interesting results. Not every veterinarian uses acupuncture, but there's an additional body* of research from animal studies.

*Yes, pun intended. No horsing around, though.

#56 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 11:38 AM:

Also by the way, veterinary acupuncture has shown some interesting results. Not every veterinarian uses acupuncture, but there's an additional body* of research from animal studies.

A JAPANESE VOICE: It's not commercial whaling! It's scientific research! We're doing a clinical study on cetacean acupuncture!

#57 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 12:13 PM:

...that's funny, all the other acupuncture studies had improved outcomes. All the cetaceans seem to have died. They must be allergic to acupuncture.

#58 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 12:14 PM:


Akupunkchure: Doin it RONG

#59 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 12:44 PM:

Just because acupuncture works, doesn't imply that it works on everybody or that the effects on everybody will be positive. There was a time when my own experiences with acupuncture had been consistently negative (it wasn't that it did nothing for me--it made my symptoms worse, or introduced new symptoms). Some people did not believe my accounts of this, because it did not fit with their beliefs about acupuncture. Others considered it evidence that acupuncture was superstitious nonsense. I actually think it's evidence that acupuncture was accomplishing *something*. A drug that has nasty side effects for some people can still be a powerful drug.

(My experience with acupuncture is no longer completely consistent. More recently, I tried different acupuncturists, and found some positive results as well as the negative ones. But the positive results tend to last hours and the negative ones last weeks. So I should probably stop experimenting with this stuff.)

It also occurs to me that double-blind tests are not the only way to validate a remedy. It's very hard to do a double-blind test on a surgical procedure. The overwhelming majority of surgeons have never considered such a thing, and would be appalled at the suggestion. Not comparing two different surgical techniques, but comparing surgery with a null treatment that feels like surgery?

#60 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 12:48 PM:

Dan Layman-Kennedy #53:

I once had a session from my husband's chiropractor (Thanksgiving special, donate four cans); it did well enough on the shoulder bursitis I was having (carrying too many heavy art books to and from school), but I decided not to return after I was told I really should eschew underwires, which interfered with the something-or-other that I translate as "chi". For someone of my endowments, this is not really an option.

#61 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 12:49 PM:

59: it's been done; techniques like arthroscopic knee surgery and angioplasty have been tested against placebos, and found to have no real effect...
Of course, you can't do a double blind test. You can have a doctor administer either a drug or a placebo without knowing which, but you can't have a surgeon not know what sort of operation he's performing!

58: next, cetacean chiropraxis. Pass me that wrecking ball.

(NB: I neither know nor care whether this is the correct word for what chiropracters do.)

#62 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 01:30 PM:

Cetacean acupuncture research. Oh my.

I'm struggling to fight down the idea of a secret randomised-controlled trial between torture and sham torture.

#63 ::: Lenora rose ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 02:04 PM:

Carrie S: Am I the only one who finds that a very odd word-form? It makes me think, "Chiropractic what?" every time I perceive it.

I believe the original world was Chiropracty, back before it gained popularity (At least, I've seen it used at least two places, one of which was Terry Pratchett). My theory is that people read signs saying "Chiropractic Centre" and assumed. But it irks me, too; it just reads wrong.

I suppose there are medics, where the -ic really is the ending, But they're expanded to "Medical practitioner", and chiropractor in long form is "Chiropractic practitioner."

#64 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 02:27 PM:

Add me to the list of people who have had some benefit from chiropractic treatment. In my case, it was not from a professional but from someone who had studied some of the techniques, and it did a really good job of eliminating some chronic kinks from my upper back, neck, and shoulders for several weeks. Then they gradually returned. I've considered looking for a local chiropractor, but have hesitated because I really don't want to get tangled up in the woo-woo aspect.

And yes, I think "chiropractic" reads like an adjective, and the associated noun should be "chiropractice".

#65 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 02:49 PM:

It should be called "chiropraxis".

As for underwires, one would think that with the notable incidents of them triggering security theater at airports, some bright entrepreneur would figure out a viable alternative material. Carbon-fiber nanotubes or something; this is the 21st Century, after all.

#66 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 04:35 PM:

Dan (53), objecting to pain medication after surgery is hardly unique to chiropractors. The surgeon who worked on my wrist was offended that I was asking for pain relief, 2 days after surgery.

#67 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 06:34 PM:

Chiropractice. Chiropracticine. Chiropraxis.

#68 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 06:35 PM:

Our vet offers acupuncture[1] and some kind of chiropractic[2]. I've always assumed this was mainly providing a placebo effect for the pet owners, though I certainly am no expert on this stuff.

Didn't the iceman (several-thousand-year-old Bronze-age corpse found in a glacier[3]) have tattoos over some acupuncture points? ISTR some Discovery Channel show about it in which they interviewed a German acupuncturist for a couple minutes (he was surprised they'd known anything about acupuncture that far back). Anyone remember or know more?

[1] Would the poorly-trained acupuncturist perform inacupuncture?

[2] And if a chiropractor messed up your back worse, would it be chiromalpractice?

[3] Sadly, reviving him is beyond the arts of chiropractic and acupuncture.

#69 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 07:04 PM:

Earl #65:

In some cases, it gets replaced by something only moderate-tech: plastic, which eventually suffers material failure (as do the metal ones). But then so do the other plastic pieces; the number of $30 (list) objects that eventually were rendered useless by the failure of a 1-cent piece of plastic "pulley" for a strap is something I've lost track of.

The more carbon nanotubes, the better, I think.

#70 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 07:29 PM:

I had some trouble with the automated translation, but it appears that there is a Chinese patent for a carbon nanotube underwire bra. I don't think it's hit the general market yet, though.

#71 ::: oliviacw ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 07:57 PM:

Joann @69 - oh heavens yes, I went through a particularly frustrating series of plastic strap-length-adjuster breakages some years back. I can't imagine who could have thought that clear acrylic-type plastic doohickeys would have any sort of lifespan under strain. The best ones are metal or, I guess, nylon.

#72 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 08:45 PM:

Earl @70:

"I had some trouble with the automated translation, but it appears that there is a Chinese patent for a carbon nanotube underwire bra."

That is definitely a "living-in-the-future" sentence.

#73 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 08:56 PM:

joann, #69, you can buy replacement strap adjusters -- usually even at fabric stores.

#74 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 09:38 PM:

I am willing to grant some validity to chiropracty, because I know massage works. Having had slipped vertabra, repaired with a mind-boggling assertive massage technique, I can't doubt the effecacy of it (you could feel the misallingment before the massuese attacked me,and when she was done, my spine was once again tactily as it ought to have been. That and I could breathe without pain).

It's when the practioners start to tell me about the subluxations causing my arthritis, or my flu, or... that I walk out the door.

Acupuncture I am still not certain of. It seems to work (we had a student who was a certified acupuncturist, and it did wonders for Dave's hay fever. May have been placebo, but if so, that's some potent placebo). So long as it's ancillary, not primary, I feel it does no harm, and might do real good.

Homeopathy, well Oliver Wendell Holmes debunking of it reads as coherently now as when he wrote it.

#75 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 09:38 PM:

Marilee, the hassle of getting the replacement strap-adjuster ON once the original has broken often outweighs the cost of getting another bra. Especially if, like me, you don't pay $30 apiece for bras, but more like $15.

#76 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 09:43 PM:

albatross: I'd wager the tatoos weren't related to acupuncture. Since there are lots of points, and many of them on joints; or other places people might like to decorate, I'd wager it's a case of projecting present belief on past peoples (what Maia, her mother and I call the "Fish on Tuesdays" fallacy of paleoanthropology).

#77 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 09:56 PM:

Physical therapists also do joint manipulation, in the spine and elsewhere, with the added advantage that they will give you exercises to address the muscle weakness or imbalance that caused the problem in the first place, so you don't have to keep going back and getting "adjusted". Disclosure: I'm a PTA and I work for a PT.

#78 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2008, 10:10 PM:

As a trained and licensed massage therapist, I'm in total agreement with Terry @74, and some regulars here will attest to experience with my work. Manipulation can help a great deal; and it's a lot less invasive than drugs or surgery. I tend towards a theory of "try the least invasive effective therapy first". There are chiros who believe that only a few adjustments are necessary, in most cases; that's not part of the marketing most chiro schools teach. I have no trouble referring someone to a chiropractor when I can feel that a vertebra is not properly aligned (and that's not uncommon). I mostly send them to the few-adjustment types that I know.

And no, I don't think it will solve everything. There's an argument for it doing good for some forms of arthritis that I'd be glad to make, Terry, but I don't think it's likely to help that in most cases.

#79 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2008, 01:46 PM:

Terry #76:

"Fish on Tuesdays"?

#80 ::: Michael Weholt ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2008, 11:02 PM:

If you are interested in rigorous criticism of various studies on the efficacy of chiro and acupuncture, may I recommend the "Skeptics Guide to the Universe"? Search on the Archive page for podcasts on various subjects that interest you. I have no connection to the New England Skeptical Society other than the fact that I am addicted to their weekly podcast.

#81 ::: Luthe ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2008, 04:08 AM:

My chiropractor actually gave me exercises designed to strengthen the muscles in my back so I wouldn't need constant adjustment. Not that I *do* them, but that's because I've figured out a way to fix any misalignments on my own (it involves a straight-backed chair).

Acupunture intrigues me. I'm inclined to believe it works because I find that touching pressure points in my back will stimulate nerves all the way down to my feet and that my ears have a strange connection to the backs of my thighs. I'm not sure it's a flow of qi, but there is definitely something happening.

Note: Your results may vary. Don't try this at home.

#82 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2008, 05:21 PM:

Joann: It's our way of mocking people who make amazingly exact explanations of things there is no evidence for.

"We can see from the collection of shad bones they ate fish on Tuesdays."

It's a reductio ad absurdem, but all to common, esp. among the lesser popularizers of science, esp. paelo athro/biology.

Reading detailed accounts of how dinosars did things is one of those.

#83 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2008, 07:01 PM:

#82 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) :::

"We can see from the collection of shad bones they ate fish on Tuesdays."

Well, we can -- since we're pretty sure that they ate fish every day...

Not that this invalidates the concept, it just shows that Making Light is populated by literalistic pedants.

#84 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2008, 07:10 PM:

John Houghton: Not that this invalidates the concept, it just shows that Making Light is populated by literalistic pedants.

And which of us is the pedant here?

My first comment (which was more detailed) was eaten when the browser crashed. What I might point out is, we don't know if they ate fish every day... in fact (to be a literalistic pedant), I chose shad because it's a seasonal fish. We can assume they ate it during the spawning season, we might assume they ate it during the off season; if they cured it.

We probably shouldn't say (absent records) "They ate this fish as a religious observance because they thought the yearly cycle of fish returning to the waters from which they were born was a sign from the Gods they too might reenter the paradise from which thier souls came to earth at the moment of thier birth."

I see that sort of thing being said all the damned time, "Fish on Tuesdays."

#85 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2008, 07:44 PM:

Not to mention that they didn't have 'Tuesday', or even necessarily a seven-day week (or any week), right?

#86 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2008, 08:40 PM:

Does anyone here know a plausible way to fondle grammar to convert "shed" into "shad" (as a nod to the classic "scrod" joke)?

#87 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2008, 05:52 AM:

#50 Chris

An MD-Ph.D whose doctoral thesis was in blood electrochemistry (I've seen the thesis that was on file in the MIT Barker Engineering Library and refrained from the urge to mark the dedication of it to the fellow's first wife with an Erratum note....) , told me that most doctors are essentially scientific ignoramuses...

#54 ajay

Uh, turns out that a lot of medical studies are done on a very small number of people. Drug trials are a different animal that some of the other types of studies....

#86 Earl

Shad shedding in the smokehouse?

#88 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2008, 11:50 PM:

And speaking of medical trials, the women here might consider joining the Army of Women. This is a group put together by two organizations and they're looking for women willing to be part of breast cancer studies. You fill out the information and if you fit a study, they'll email you and you can take it or refuse. All up to you. It doesn't matter if nobody in your family has ever had breast cancer -- they need people to participate in the studies. The more women who join and can participate, the more likely we are to find a cure.

#89 ::: Singing Wren ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2008, 10:28 PM:

Marilee @ 88:

That seems like quite a sensible idea. It's my bedtime, so I won't be doing any sign ups tonight, but I think this site is going to get forwarded to a number of my relatives.

Also, corrected link: Army of Women

#90 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2008, 12:03 AM:

Singing Wren, yours at least forwards to the right one: Army of Women!

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