Is Western Science Conspiring Against Traditional Chinese Medicine? The Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with "SkepDoc" Harriet Hall
Pulling the Internal Martial Arts Out of the Pre-Scientific Past

Acupuncture, Qigong and Jesus -- Why Traditional Chinese Medicine is Like Religion

Religion-alternative medicineThis isn't going to go down well with my friends who are acupuncturists, qigong instructors, and Christians.

I know a lot of very good people in all three groups. Hell, I used to be a Christian, and I have practiced qigong since 1987. I use qigong for stress management and to help maintain my center in a hectic, crazy world. I studied acupuncture for two years, had all the equipment, and even practiced on people. I don't do that anymore.

I am a skeptic.

That means I need evidence before I believe something, and I have not seen evidence that the medical claims made by proponents of alternative medicine and TCM work very often beyond what you would expect from a placebo.

I wasn't always a skeptic. My mom raised me to be a Christian, but I left the faith around age 20, when I discovered Eastern philosophy. I gave the concepts of chi and acupuncture a shot -- a very open-minded shot -- as I studied qigong and acupuncture. I wanted them to be true.

Being a skeptic means that I am not opposed to anything. I am open to evidence. If you make a medical claim, a religious statement or scientific statement and can back it up with proof, I'll believe. But I can't take your word for it. Sorry. 

That drives some Christians crazy, and it also doesn't sit well with some people who believe in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Last week, I interviewed Dr. Harriet Hall, the "SkepDoc," for my Internal Fighting Arts podcast. Since most of my interviews are with internal arts instructors, qigong masters and philosophers, some statements had been made along the way that made me feel that my audience needed to hear an alternative view on alternative medicine.

Dr. Hall analyzes clinical trials and investigates the validity of "complimentary" and "alternative" medicine (CAM). She is a retired physician and Air Force flight surgeon who knows how to apply critical thinking skills to medical claims. 

I did a couple of days of research before the interview. I learned a lot about clinical trials, science-based medicine, and the lack of evidence for chi healing and acupuncture, two of the biggest pieces of TCM.

When the podcast went online, it triggered comments, complaints and arguments from Chi Believers. A pattern emerged in some of these comments, and after promoting the need for critical thinking skills in the internal arts for a couple of decades, a new thought hit me like a two-by-four.

TCM and the belief in Chi is a religion.

Chi Believers use the same arguments that some Christians use when defending their beliefs against an atheist. Trust me. I have debated some Christians and the same talking points are used and the same strategy is employed by chi believers.

Let me walk you through some examples:

Skeptic Statement -- There is no scientific evidence that God (or Chi) exists. 

Religious response -- "You can't use reason and logic to determine if God exists. That is arrogant."

Chi Believer response -- "Acupuncture (or qigong) can't be tested by 'Western' science." 

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Religious response -- "You simply don't understand. I have studied theology and have put a lot of thought and study into this. I know God is real."

Chi Believer response -- "You simply don't understand. I have studied and practiced (acupuncture, chi healing, etc.) for years. I know it is real."

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Skeptic Statement -- But you can't prove that Acupuncture (or chi healing or prayer) works.

Religious response -- "I know God is real because I have a personal relationship with him. Jesus has worked miracles in my life."

Chi Believer response -- "I know that (acupuncture, chi healing, Reiki, etc.) works because it has worked on me."

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Skeptic Statement -- There is absolutely no evidence that anyone has ever been cured of an illness or disease by God (or acupuncture or chi healing).

Religious response -- "I know many people that Jesus has healed through prayer."

Chi Believer response -- "I have seen patients who have improved from my (alternative medicine) treatments."

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Skeptic Statement -- Randomized, double-blind clinical trials show that acupuncture (or chi healing or prayer) does not work.

Religious response -- "Modern science does not worship God. There is a conspiracy to persecute Christians."

Chi Believer response -- "There is a conspiracy among 'Western' scientists and doctors to discredit alternative medicine."

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Religious response -- "You are closed-minded to evidence of God, which is all around you."

Chi Believer response -- "You are closed-minded to evidence of chi."

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Religious response -- "There is something wrong with you. Something happened in your life to make you hate God."

Chi Believer response -- "You are a fascist nazi and a nihilist prick." (This was actually said to me. I had to look up nihilist. It is someone who dismisses all religious and moral principles, usually with the attitude that life is meaningless -- hardly my beliefs. Believing in truth over fantasy is sort of a moral principle, isn't it?).

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Skeptic Statement -- Modern science can test any medical claim. Alternative medicine (and existence of God) either can't be tested or fails the tests.

Religious response -- "People have believed in Jesus for 2,000 years. I guess all those people were wrong and you are right."

Chi Believer response -- "Acupuncture and chi healing has been done for 5,000 years. It wouldn't still be used if it didn't work." (I tell them in that case, Astrology must work because it is thousands of years old).

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Skeptic Statement -- There is a lot of violence in the Bible -- children and babies are killed by God in many parts of the Bible. 

Religious response -- "You are misinterpreting the Bible. You can't cherry-pick scripture. It is about peace and love."

Skeptic Statement -- Scientists can measure energy down to the sub-atomic level, but they can't find evidence of chi flowing in our bodies.

Chi Believer response -- "You are misinterpreting the word Chi. It doesn't mean a literal energy, it means (then they proceed to rationalize, forgetting that acupuncture relies on a literal energy flowing through meridians)."

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Skeptic Statement -- We can measure all types of energy, but we can't see or measure chi and we are supposed to believe that invisible beings are watching us?

Religious response -- "You can't see air but you believe it is there. You can't see atoms but you believe they are there."

Chi Believer response -- "You can't see air but you believe it is there. You can't see atoms but you believe they are there."

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Skeptic Statement -- Would you take your infant daughter to an acupuncturist if she became really sick (or take them just to a faith healer)?

Religious response -- "God works through doctors. We are not opposed to doctors." (Ummmm, Christian Scientists are)

Chi Believer response -- "Our medicine is complimentary. It is designed to be used with modern medicine." 

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And so on, and so on. In both religion and chi belief, reason and science are batted away like mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus. There is something wrong with the person asking the questions, you see.

I have been teaching the internal arts for nearly 20 years. During that time, I have tried to convince internal artists that critical thinking skills are crucial. We end up asking more critical questions about a new car purchase than we ask about alternative medicine. If a "master" or a black belt tells us something is true, or if it is in a book on the internal arts or qigong, we are ready to believe. The writers of books and magazines, and the people who practice alternative medicine for money, can make it sound very scientific and very convincing. Creationists are also smooth at confusing people with pseudo-scientific talk and phrases that confuse listeners (on purpose) but sound like real science. It isn't.

Once we believe, and invest time, money, and emotion into a belief (whether it is religion or alternative medicine), it takes a lot of internal strength to receive new information and realize that you need to adjust your beliefs to reflect facts.

Not everyone is that strong. Some people are, however, and that is why us skeptics continue to ask questions and shine a light on what real science says about certain beliefs that can only be accurately described as "magical thinking."

The Internet has caused the numbers of critical thinkers to increase. When I was a child, and even a young adult, I could not hop online and check out my mom's religious claims or my kung-fu instructor's medical or metaphysical claims. Now, children and adults can do that, and that means good information is only a mouse-click away.

That is why I wrote this blog post. I can be friends with people who believe unproven things, but if there is a problem here, I don't think it is with the person who demands scientific evidence -- modern scientific evidence -- when they ask questions about medical claims.

It has become increasingly obvious as I grow older, and less willing to believe anything I am told, that both chi believers and the deeply religious, when faced with questions of science, reason and logic that threaten their beliefs, will put themselves through very similar intellectual gymnastics to rationalize what is not there. 

Comments

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Kevin

This is why you're my favorite IMA writer and podcaster. Almost makes me want to move to flyover country.

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