Growing up I loved science. I took every science class I could while growing up. Science represented a system for answering the mysteries of the universe. I also came to love science fiction. Scientists recognize that the answers that we have today are but a stepping stone to better answers in the future. Science is never static. Einstein created theories that helped us better understand the world. Those theories did not make Newton’s theories irrelevant, they just helped us understand the world better. Good science fiction proposes ideas and answers that might be in our future. they inspire young people to look for those better answers, rather than just accept the best answers we have now.
The problem is that we are human and we like solid firm black and white answers. It is said that radical scientific advancements take 40 years to be accepted. That is how long it takes for older scientists with firm established ideas to die off. While every scientist knows that science is never static, the human side wants things to be locked in the way that is understandable to them. The defenders of the established ways of thinking are important. They are the skeptics that force those with new ideas to repeatedly defend and provide further evidence that the new ideas are valid. At some point new ideas are proven or not, and those that are proven are grudgingly accepted by the skeptics or eventually the skeptics are outnumbered.
While studying chemistry, biology and physics in college, I got involved in karate training. Traditional asian fighting arts have a long history of stories about acupuncture and herbal medicine being used to treat injuries. About that time I saw a documentary on acupuncture being used in place of pharmaceutical anesthesia in Asia. The science geek in me was skeptical. Nothing about this made sense from the science I had learned. Here was a system of medicine that millions of people relied on, reportedly had good medical outcomes and realistically seemed too solidly established to be a hoax. The documentary showed a very interesting demonstration. A rabbit was restrained and a small heat lamp was turned on heating the sensitive nose of the rabbit. The rabbit almost immediately squirmed in obvious distress. The light was turned off and when the rabbit was again calm, acupuncture needles were inserted at various points. The light was again turned on and the rabbit sat calmly for many seconds before slightly twitching the nose in annoyance.
My science brain looked at the evidence. Sure this could all be a hoax and the rabbit was drugged or the light was changed. But what if it wasn’t? If what was shown was real then what do we know? The needles were not inserted in ways that would obviously damage the nerves to the nose. A rabbit is not susceptible to a placebo effect. More importantly for science, this was repeatable. The people who demonstrated this experiment were so confident in what they were doing that they could repeat this specific demonstration on camera when asked.
That is the key to the movement of a radical science idea to accepted science principle- that ability to show consistent repeatable outcomes that can be measured and support the radical idea. The science geek has but two logical paths- the demonstration was a fake, or there are things about the body that science does not yet understand about how a living body works. For the science geek who is looking to science fiction and understands that we do not understand everything, learning about acupuncture becomes a scientific path to a better understanding of the body and the world we live in. That is the direction I took.
Acupuncture is actually just a tool of a much larger system of medical understanding of the body. It is much the same as the fact that surgery is a tool of biomedical medicine. There are reasons why and why not to use surgery based on an established system of medicine that determines whether the harm of surgery is outweighed by the known benefits. Acupuncture is also determined by elaborate understanding of the functioning of the body and is used in much the same way. The acupuncture specific systems of diagnosis are obviously different than those of biomedical medicine. There is no way in the biomedical model of the body for acupuncture to be justified. Likewise any acupuncture research that is defined by biomedical concepts is going to be flawed from the start. Changing the diagnostic model, looking at the system of cause and effect in the body in a different way- then acupuncture can and does make sense as a way to cause change in the functioning of the body and help the patient heal.
The acupuncturist and the biomedical physician are presented with much of the same patient information. The difference is how they connect the dots to form a diagnosis. Everyone knows that a graph of data can be manipulated to make the graph look jagged or flat depending on how you represent the data. In the end it is the same data even if two different graphs appear to present the information differently.
There is nothing intrinsically healthy about stabbing a bit of metal into a patient. The body is a dynamic living system that responds to the stimulus of a needle. If we understand how a stimulus will change the function of the body then we can use that stimulus to create positive change in the body. We all know foods change the way we feel. Herbal medicines are simply extreme foods which cause known responses in the body. The system of medicine determines proper use of the medical treatment. In biomedical medicine the treatment is always linked to the diagnosis. In some cases like prescribing an antidepressant for depression, the connection is obvious in our language. In Asian medicines the diagnosis of a patient having what is defined as “stuck energy” will warrant a herb or needle treatment that “moves energy”. There is a repeatable consistency to the system.
Great new ideas in science often come with predictions. These predictions are testable hypotheses that help confirm the theory. There is a long history of science predicting the existence of elements or fundamental particles long before any one was able to confirm that those things existed. In my acupuncture practice I am continually amazed at the wisdom that is woven into the diagnostic systems. Patients who are missing kidneys or spleens present symptoms that are predicted in ancient texts about what the symptoms of a “deficient kidney, or deficient spleen” would look like. Female patients who are dealing with infertility produce basal body temperature charts that consistently match up with predictions of their Traditional Chinese Medical diagnosis. These are modern situations and yet they show repeated consistency with an ancient understanding of the body.
In the end acupuncture is not about sticking a needle in the perfect spot. It is the understanding of life and that there is always more than one way to look at a problem. That is what science is all about- accepting that we do not know everything and that science is always striving to move forward. There is a concept rooted deep in Martial arts, Asian medicine, and philosophy which is the Dao or the way（道). The concept of Dao is part of the scientific process. In science the path forward is just as important as the goal. Good scientists challenge themselves to improve our understanding of the universe. In the words of the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein- “One man’s magic is another man’s engineering, supernatural is a null word.”
David Bock C.Ac.,Dipl.OM, FABORM
David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine
Hartland Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066