Maya's Marvelous Acupuncture?

As hard as it is to believe, there was once a time when I didn’t think that acupuncture was quackery, an ancient “Eastern” treatment that “evolved” from bloodletting not unlike bloodletting in ancient “Western” bloodletting. This time was, hard as it is to believe, less than eight years ago, right around the time just before I got involved with my not-so-super-secret other blog. I figured that, because acupuncture involves sticking needles into the body, maybe there might be something to it. That doesn’t mean that I thought that there was something to it, only that back then I was a lot more open to the possibility that there might be something to it than I am now. What changed that was actually learning something about acupuncture, studying the literature, and coming to the inevitable conclusion that, as Steve Novella and David Colqhoun put it, acupuncture is no more than a theatrical placebo, without compelling efficacy of evidence for pretty much anything.

I also learned how traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), of which acupuncture is the most famous component among “Western” people, was basically no more than the retconning of Chinese folk medicine by Chairman Mao in order to justify its use because he didn’t have enough doctors trained in scientific medicine to take care of all of his people and to sell it to the West as the “integration” of Chinese and “Western” medicine. Yes, TCM was the first example in modern times of “integrating” quackery into scientific medicine, courtesy of Chairman Mao, the real inventor of TCM. Moreover, what passes for TCM today bears little resemblance to what Chinese folk medicine was even a hundred years ago, much less 2,000 years ago. Just ask yourself this: A couple of millennia ago, did anyone have the technology to produce those tiny thin needles that are used for acupuncture today—or anything like them? Of course not. Yet, acupuncture is frequently promoted by its adherents as being more than 2,000 years old. Again, even a hundred years ago, it looked much different.

So I reacted with a fair amount of alarm and annoyance when a good friend of my wife’s sent me a link to a children’s book by an acupuncturist, Samara White, and Troy White, who illustrated the book. The book is entitled Maya and Friends Visit the Acupuncturist. It features Maya, who is described thusly:

Maya loves trying new things! She goes on adventures with her friends, exploring and learning about the world around her. There’s a lot to know about her own body as well, and Maya is starting to understand how to stay healthy, and what to do when she isn’t feeling well. She wants to be able to rest and get better, so she has energy to dance, play, and discover new things.

She’s accompanied by her friends Bobby Bear and Ellie Elephant to visit Dr. Meow, described as a “very wise acupuncturist,” who apparently alleviates her fear of getting turned into a pincushion with acupuncture needles:

Owner of Purrr-fect Acupuncture, Dr. Meow knows all about Chinese medicine. She loves explaining it to new patients and friends. Dr. Meow takes great care with each of her patients, and is always figuring out how to best use her wisdom and techniques to help everyone feel their best.

If there’s one thing that irritates me more than pseudoscience and quackery itself, it’s books like Maya and Friends Visit the Acupuncturist that are clearly designed to indoctrinate children into a pseudoscientific world view, such as the prescientific world view of TCM. As I like to say, why is “ancient Eastern medicine” so favored? Today, we laugh at “ancient Western medicine,” with its four humors, “imbalances” of which were once thought to be the cause of all disease. Yet what is TCM based on? Five elements, with imbalances between things like heat, cold, damp, and dry (among other things) posited as the cause of all disease. That’s considered believable, while humoral theory is a joke, a historical oddity that was believed for many centuries, right up until as recently as a couple of hundred years ago. In any case, White offers not just acupuncture in her clinic, but craniosacral therapy, which is one of the silliest forms of pseudoscientific medicine in existence based on nonexistent physiology and someone seeing a similarity between cranial sutures and fish gills. (Seriously, the longer I discuss such treatments, the less surprises me.) More disturbingly, White also offers craniosacral therapy to infants, which is useless.

So what, exactly, is the story in Maya and Friends Visit the Acupuncturist? Fortunately for you (or maybe not), there is a preview video on YouTube to answer just this question:

The video starts with Maya coming down with the symptoms of a cold or the flu, with sneezing and chills, with runny nose and a sore throat. As Bobby Bear expresses concern, Ellie Elephant’s first suggestion is to call Dr. Meow, a TCM practitioner, to get acupuncture, herbs, and “natural medicine.” So Bobby, Ellie, and Maya head to Dr. Meow’s office, where Dr. Meow subjects Maya to the prescientific and unvalidated method of pulse diagnosis. At that point the video ends, and the narrator urges viewers to follow Maya’s story by buying the book, to read about Dr. Meow teaching Maya and her friends about qi, acupuncture, yin and yang, and herbs.

To get the idea of what this book is about (besides propaganda for TCM for children), Samara White wrote a guest blog at a pediatric (!) acupuncture website, entitled Helping Children be at Ease with Needles.. Now, no doubt there is utility to teaching children to be at ease with needles for when they receive science-based care such as vaccinations or when they require blood draws. To make them “at ease” with acupuncture needles? Not so much. Not that that stops White:

In the book, a young girl named Maya takes the initiative to go to the acupuncturist along with her animal friends. In doing so, she takes her health into her own hands. It was important for me to illustrate to kids that acupuncture can be something that they would want to try, and that it can even be an exciting adventure.

In the story, getting to the acupuncture office itself is fun—it’s not a chore and it’s not compared to going to a typical doctor’s office. The acupuncture office itself, Dr. Meow’s office, is full of fun items and interesting things to learn about.

Maya’s perspective of the world around her and her place in it shifts as a result of everything she learns at the acupuncturist’s office. She realizes she is connected to the world around her, and her body is connected to itself in surprising ways, like how a point on her hand can affect her nose, or how an acupuncture needle touching a channel pathway running down her legs can help her belly feel better.

Dr. Meow demonstrates acupuncture for Maya and Bobby Bear.

Dr. Meow demonstrates acupuncture for Maya and Bobby Bear.

Again, acupuncture is theatrical placebo. It has no effect beyond placebo. So, unlike sticking needles in the skin for vaccination (for example), sticking them through the skin has only the potential to do bad things, albeit generally a small one unless the acupuncturist is one prone to collapsing a lung by sticking a needle too deep in the chest. Be that as it may, White really irritates me when she intentionally tries to contrast acupuncture to getting shots at the doctor’s office:

Needles and shots are not the same!

And, the book does not compare acupuncture needles to shots. Not because we’re hiding anything, but because acupuncture needles really aren’t anything like hypodermic needles, so no need to ever mention shots and acupuncture in the same sentence!

Actually, I agree. Acupuncture needles and shots are not the same thing. Shots (such as vaccines) will actually do something therapeutic or protective to the child. Acupuncture needles are just needles being stuck into the body and do nothing useful. This appears to be a classic case of wanting to have it both ways. If, as White argues, acupuncture really is medicine, really does something, then acupuncture needles are like shots, only smaller and a lot more of them. It’s also a distasteful denigration of real medicine to children. White is willing to paint shots as being scary as a way to try to portray acupuncture as somehow being fun, even though both involve sticking needles in the body, and, in fact, acupuncture involves sticking far more needles into the body than shots.

Oh, and there’s a portrayal of Ellie Elephant getting cupping, which is certainly among the sillier bits of quackery considered part of TCM.

You know, looking over the promotional materials and excerpts from this book, I can’t help but be reminded of another children’s book, Melanie’s Marvelous Measles.