This Bullshit Is Brought To You By The Letter “A”

A is for Alligator—look at that bite!
A is Albino—he’s totally white
A, Acupuncture; let’s poke him with pins
A, Anecdotal; the evidence spins
A is for Alt-Med, which doesn’t do shit…
A is for Asshole: I hope she gets bit.

Via the Beeb, a story (with video I can’t embed here, but he’s a cute little guy) of an albino alligator being treated with acupuncture at a Brazilian zoo. And for the record the “asshole” in the last line is me–if I am objecting to an alligator getting its jaw taped shut and pins stuck all down its backside (which you’re damn right I’m objecting to), it is a bit of an asshole move to cheer on the hypothetical alligator-bite injury of someone who is just (sincerely, I believe) trying to help.

The acupuncturist is not evil; she thinks she’s helping. The evidence strongly suggests that there is nothing beyond a placebo effect in acupuncture (or an expectancy effect in the case of animal acupuncture). It’s not easy to have double blind acupuncture, but the most methodologically sound studies I have seen have shown no difference between the “real” and control conditions (whether sham needles or wrong needle placement). My favorite report of this, though, came from an alternative magazine my sister sent me–it claimed that not only did acupuncture work, but so did sham acupuncture! (In other words, there is a significant placebo effect–and placebo is much different from “no effect”–but nothing beyond that.)

So I am not really angry with the acupuncturist. She’s trying to help. It’s the superstructure of alt-med pseudoscience that allows people to poke with needles, give sugar pills or distilled water, wave their hands vaguely, or think happy thoughts, and think they are helping. “But it can’t hurt–anything is better than nothing!”, I have heard… but there are people foregoing real cancer treatments (with their nasty side effects because the medicine is actually doing something) to gamble their lives on this institutionalized fraud.


  1. René says

    Hi, Cuttlefish, a fan of you here. I forwarded your little gem to Rafael Gutierrez, a biologist and colleague of Daniela Cervaletti. I didn’t find her on Facebook, but I did find him.

    I suppose the BBC will receive many angry comments for publicizing this without any criticism, so obeying the Bystander Effect, I did not contact them myself.


  2. iplon says

    Intentions matter, but this is a clear example of why intentions are not the only thing that matters. The benchmark of “reasonable person” is especially useful in cases like these: I think it is safe to say that a reasonable person should understand that placebo effects shouldn’t be assumed to function cross-species. Even if you haven’t heard of the placebo effect, a reasonable person shouldn’t assume that medicine and treatments for people aren’t necessarily the same as medicine and treatments for animals.

    The real shame here has to be on the zoo for allowing this to happen, I feel. They should certainly have somebody on staff who knows better. So either they are unprepared to take care of the animals in their charge or they are willfully ignoring the suggestions of those who are qualified to do so.

    Too many people, as it has been constantly made apparent, make themselves and others victims of their own ignorance.

    Unless of course there have been all sorts of studies proving the efficacy of acupuncture on alligators, in which case I recant this entire post and will be forced to repeatedly apply a wall to my forehead.

  3. grumpyoldfart says

    The zoo owners will never admit that they were wrong so they will say that the acupuncture worked perfectly. And then they will notice that acupuncturists cost much less than vets so more will be employed and the vets will be re-hired on a ‘call-out’ basis. The animals will die years younger than normally, but the public will never notice and zoo will be saving money – and that’s the important thing isn’t it?

  4. beelzebubba says

    Acupuncture’s even worse with animals because there isn’t even a placebo effect. That’s the downside of not being able to brainwash animals with bullshit

  5. timberwoof says

    Remember Navarre, the wolf who was found in a stream in Italy? He was taken to an animal shelter and hospital, where he was x-rayed and MRI’d and treated for his gunshot wounds. He got better … and even put up with acupuncture treatments. (Gah! He was probably too tired and weak to complain.) At the time, I tried Googling for maps of wolf acupuncture meridians. The only thing I found was acupuncture clinics or doctors named “Wolf”. Nobody the hell knows how to acutely puncture a wolf, and I bet the same can be said for alligators and other animals. (Where are alligator meridians? Do they have the same number of Chakras as we supposedly do? Does claw reflexology work? How do you know?)

  6. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    The placebo effect will not work on animals who have no expectations of efficacy. The difficulty of double-blind studies is possibly what led to accupressure being a somewhat popular mode of this quackery? Amazingly, we found we didn’t even need to use the needles! Yay science!

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