Acupuncture: Not A Science

This paper was my final paper submitted for my philosophy of science course, and the prompt was essentially to choose a controversial "science" and determine whether or not it was a science utilizing the information we had learned over the semester. Feel free to skip around because it was eleven pages in MLA format, and the philosophy section starts at the bolded sentence in the middle of the essay, and at the end, my sources.

Acupuncture, similar to its roots, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), although heavily influenced by Western biomedicine, is not based upon modern scientific knowledge — and therefore is a pseudoscience. Acupuncture, a branch of TCM, has long thought to be a science or scientific procedure by many enthusiasts and practitioners. However, acupuncture fails to meet some of the most fundamental rules some would use to determine what constitutes science. Acupuncture does not follow Popper’s structural theory of falsificationism; in which, science should always try to falsify their methods and not always prove as true. Both acupuncture and TCM additionally are not qualified as a ‘normal science’ because they are not “puzzle solving.” However, in light of such criticisms, acupuncture and TCM can possibly be argued to be considered a science or scientific by Feyerabend, who says we should consider “alternate theories.” Apart from Feyerabend’s theory, TCM and acupuncture, especially, should not be seen as a science because they do not follow foundational theories of being a relevant and well-confirmed science.
What exactly is acupuncture? Acupuncture, according to Nordqvist, author of “How does acupuncture work?” and contributor for MedicalNewsToday, is “a form of treatment that involves inserting very thin needles through a person’s skin at specific points on the body, to various depths.” To effectively criticize acupuncture and the efficacy of this treatment, it’s essential to understand its aims and practices.
Acupuncture’s ultimate goal is to insert needles in a person’s body to balance their “energy.” According to Nordqvist, “it is claimed, [to] help boost wellbeing and may cure some illnesses.” This is particularly where Western medical doctors and scientists remain skeptical of the effectiveness and claims of acupuncture. Acupuncture practitioners claim that acupuncture can indeed help with a plethora of different conditions: “headaches, blood, pressure problems, and whooping cough, among others,” according to MedicalNewsToday. There is also no scientific proof that the meridians or any of the acupuncture points acupuncturists and traditional Chinese practitioners claim, exist. Although there is not yet any evidence of the acupuncture points in which the thin needles are inserted, some experts have used neuroscience to attempt to explain acupuncture and its benefits — if any. To many of the practitioners of acupuncture, these “acupuncture points” are commonly referred to as areas where nerves, muscles, and connective tissue can be stimulated. Although these would seem like effective areas for the acupuncture needles, it is still unclear about acupuncture's effectiveness and relatedness to science.
Acupuncture is commonly affiliated with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) because acupuncture is actually considered a traditional Chinese medicine/remedy. Many professionals have “debunked” TCM to be not a science or even unscientific. TCM by definition, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) originated in ancient China and has evolved over thousands of years. TCM practitioners use herbal medicines and various mind and body practices, such as acupuncture and tai chi, to treat or prevent health problems.” Evidently, acupuncture is closely related to TCM because it is a traditional Chinese practice.
    Subsequently, it can be helpful to identify whether acupuncture is a science or even scientific when looking at TCM. TCM claims “that health is the result of a harmonious balance of the complementary extremes of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ of the life force known as ‘qi,’” and that illnesses and chronic diseases are merely an imbalance of these “life force[s],” according to MedicalNewsToday. In an article by Peter Eckman featured in the Journal of Chinese Medicine, he studies the work of Professor Paul Unschuld. Unschuld argues that Western biomedicine is the basis for scientific fact and uses it to prove TCM and acupuncture as “unequivocally” pseudoscience. In fact, Eckman states, “Unschuld appears to view these concepts of what he refers to as ‘systematic correspondence theory’ as pseudoscience.” Unschuld also speaks at various events about the ineffectiveness of TCM and acupuncture and when asked by Eckman if “you [Unschuld] developed a case of low back pain or sciatica, would you consider acupuncture treatment?” Unschuld immediate response, as written by Eckman: “Absolutely not!” Unschuld would argue that acupuncture, in this case, is nothing more than a powerful placebo — and therefore a non-scientific practice, rightfully so.
However, one of the most extensive studies up to date on acupuncture concerning chronic pain — a meta-analysis of 29 well-conducted studies involving approximately 18,000 patients and published in 2012 on October in the Archives of Internal Medicine — found that acupuncture was indeed useful for treating minimal chronic pains. Because of this, the study determined that acupuncture could be a “reasonable referral” option for people with acute, chronic pain. In light of this, however, according to Palermo, an Associate Editor for LiveScience, “doctors wrote that, ‘[s]ignificant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo’ but that added that ‘these differences are relatively modest.’” Now, with “modest” proven effectiveness of acupuncture do the practices and treatment constitute it to be a science?
Many people would primarily utilize Karl Popper’s, known for his rejection of the classical scientific method in favor of empiricist falsification, theory of falsification to challenge the scientificness of acupuncture. Popper’s philosophy of falsificationism is that scientific theories should not strive to prove their methods correct but attempt to prove them wrong. By always trying to falsify hypothesis, it is further solidifying theories to withstand scrutiny from other experts or even the possibility that it may be false.
A joint statement that is usually affiliated with Popper’s theory and used to describe its primary purpose is, according to Zerella, author of “Karl Popper and Falsificationism,” “[a] million successful experiments cannot prove a theory correct, but one failed experiment can prove a theory wrong.” Therefore, when the “meta-analysis of 29 well-conducted studies involving approximately 18,000 patients, published in 2012 on October in the Archives of Internal Medicine” says acupuncture does have some effectiveness, it could be that it has yet to fail. It is exceedingly important to determine whether acupuncture is effective or ineffective, in regards to its scientificity or whether it's even scientific because continuously successful experiments could be a basis to call acupuncture scientific.
    With that, it is crucial to note and consider that acupuncture is not attempting to falsify their theories/claims or ideas: that meridians exist, for example. In acupuncture, practitioners are always trying to prove that what they do as of right: maybe not to be necessarily a science in itself but possibly scientific. Acupuncturists attempt to rationalize these “meridians” instead of trying to falsify them and state, in turn, why they might not be true. In fact, a community for acupuncture enthusiasts and practitioners, FSPA Community Acupuncture, says this, in favor of acupuncture, about meridians in regards to TCM as well: “The Chinese have identified 71 meridians in the human body, which is a basic energy map for all people. Each of the major organs in the body is associated with its own meridian.” The acupuncture community quotes according to the “Classical Chinese explanation.”
That being so, what the acupuncture community and enthusiasts fail to mention is the fact that acupuncture is a pseudoscience or non-scientific. They never explicitly say that acupuncture is a science, but by mentioning the various benefits and meridians assuredly, can imply that they perhaps believe acupuncture is scientific. When, not only is their basis of belief based on the fundamental scientific theories of Western biomedicine, but they are not trying to disprove or provide the opposing argument against their statements.
However, in favor of acupuncture enthusiasts and practitioners, it can be hard to try to test the effectiveness of acupuncture and in proving it to be scientific or not. Acupuncture is an extremely invasive practice so it would be nearly impossible to have a placebo to test its effectiveness, and ultimately its scientificity. By not being able to eventually examine the effectiveness of acupuncture and what it claims to do by not being able to do a placebo, for example, successfully, can dismiss all claims that it can’t be scientific. It could dismiss all claims because there would be no basis to call acupuncture non-scientific when, due to the invasiveness of acupuncture, it’s difficult to prove its benefits. Additionally, however, despite this challenge opposers of acupuncture could introduce a different theory to mark it as pseudoscience.
Another notable philosopher of science whose theory can be used to de-rationalize the practice of acupuncture and TCM is Thomas Kuhn. His theory, according to Bird, contributor for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “[h]is [Kuhn’s] account of the development of science held that science enjoys periods of stable growth punctuated by revisionary revolutions.” Many empiricists could use Kuhn’s theory of paradigms and normal science to attempt to delegitimize acupuncture ultimately. In the same article published by the FSPA Community Acupuncture, they claim:
“To the human body, acupuncture needles are a physical stimulus. In Western science, a stimulus is defined as a detectable change in either the external environment or within the body itself. When the body detects change, it produces a response. Although acupuncture is not yet fully understood by Western science, there is increasing interest in its outcomes and benefits.”
This also relates to how acupuncture and TCM are largely based on Western biomedicine. Furthermore, the community is claiming that in fact, it’s Western science that has yet to understand the breadth of acupuncture. This is however not the case; acupuncture is evidently pseudoscience, and this is known not only for their lack of falsifiability but also for their absence in “puzzle solving.” In regards to Kuhn’s theory, one would believe that puzzle solving is attempting to relate to the paradigm shifts Kuhn mentions; however, acupuncture is not relating or attempting to advance current scientific revolutions, or what Kuhn would call paradigm shifts. If we look at other well-confirmed sciences or scientific theories/practices, we can see that they are not like acupuncture in the sense that they are actually trying to “puzzle solve”: essential to what constitutes science.
Acupuncture nor Traditional Chinese Medicine is puzzle solving. Kuhn’s theory chiefly mentions that normal science is puzzle solving in regards to the most recent paradigm or scientific revolution, and TCM and acupuncture don’t do that.
Next, what acupuncturists and acupuncture enthusiasts would most likely introduce is Feyerabend’s ideology that we should accept “alternate theories” and that science, today, is tyrannical. According to Preston, a contributor for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul Feyerabend was “a critic of Karl Popper's ‘critical rationalism,’ and went on to become one of the twentieth century's most famous philosophers of science. An imaginative maverick, he became a critic of philosophy of science itself, particularly of ‘rationalist’ attempts to lay down or discover rules of scientific method.” Acupuncturists would most likely utilize his theory because as stated in the excerpt, Feyerabend and his theories were primarily utilized in opposition to “‘rationalist’ attempts to lay down or discover rules of scientific method.” This is because acupuncture's main criticisms are mainly from rationalistic and empirical ideologies.
Feyerabend also largely believes that “alternate theories” should be widely accepted, in attempts to deviate from what he calls “tyrannical science.” In an argument between acupuncture and TCM enthusiasts, in regards to the philosophy of science, Feyerabend’s theory and ideology would undoubtedly be presented in favor of TCM and acupuncture practices. This is because Feyerabend believes we should be “open-minded” to accepting other theories that would seem out of the norm. He does this because he has stated that science has become “tyrannical.” Feyerabend says this because empiricists, mainly, believe that science is the underlying of everything true and therefore science should be used as a guide to determine what is a science or pseudoscience. In attempts to not becoming a tyrannical science, Feyerabend would possibly consider acupuncture as scientific or science to further solidify relating and other theories, such as TCM, or vice versa. With that, some people would argue that by accepting acupuncture as a science or scientific we are seeking to advance our methods to constitute scientific methods.
When looking at the basis for acupuncture, well — there is none. It needs to be taken into account that TCM “originated in ancient China” and is thousands of years old, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. It is noteworthy to recognize the lengthy extent at which TCM and acupuncture have been practiced because there was no “concept of empiricism in science” when it was first founded and practiced. According to Michaeli, a medical professional and contributor for The Doctor Weighs In:
“When you examine the meridians of the different schools of thought of acupuncture, you find absolutely no neurological basis for them. There are no nerves that follow the meridians. What about the muscular system? It provides no anatomical basis for the practice either.
In a way, looking for a scientific basis for ancient theories is a bit unfair and certainly irrelevant. The ancient Chinese, just like the ancient Greeks, did not have the concept of empiricism in science.”
Although, both TCM and acupuncture have claimed to advanced, with the help of Western biomedicine, there is undoubtedly an underlying of what was practiced thousands of years ago — which wasn’t based on rationality. That is why TCM and, even more so, acupuncture cannot be scientific or even a science by acupuncturists and acupuncture enthusiasts, but instead, it must be seen as pseudoscience.
Acupuncture is a largely practiced treatment today, and some may even claim it’s scientific or even, daringly, a science. This is not the case, acupuncture fundamentally fails in all aspects that would otherwise be used to constitute a theory or practice as a science or as scientific. Both TCM, from which acupuncture originates, and acupuncture are unsuccessful in trying to falsify their doctrines and practices. Falsificationism, although recently introduced, is fundamental in constituting whether something is successfully well-confirmed enough to be considered a science or scientific — which acupuncture fails to do. Acupuncture is also not “puzzle solving” nor would it be regarded as normal science as defined by Kuhn; it’s also not relating to the paradigm or scientific revolutions described by Kuhn.
In light of these criticisms, acupuncturists would most likely claim these empirical views to be tyrannical and hold Feyerabend’s theories and ideology up high. However, acupuncture is foundationally and underlyingly based on treatments practiced in Chinese culture thousands of years ago when they “did not have the concept of empiricism of science.” Ultimately, to call the study of acupuncture, despite its proven minor effectiveness, a science or even scientific would be an insult to well-confirmed theories and sciences. Therefore, by these criteria, acupuncture is unequivocally a pseudoscience.  

1000wordphilosophy, ~. “Karl Popper and Falsificationism.” 1000, 17 Dec. 2018,
“Acupuncture Is a Theatrical Placebo: the End of a Myth.” DC's Improbable Science, 4 Dec. 2014,
Bird, Alexander. “Thomas Kuhn.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 31 Oct. 2018,
“FSPA Community Acupuncture.” Acupuncture,
Michaeli, Dov. “Does Acupuncture Work? What the Evidence Shows.” The Doctor Weighs In, The Doctor Weighs In, 15 Jan. 2019,
Nordqvist, Christian. “Acupuncture: How It Works, Uses, Benefits, and Risks.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 21 Dec. 2017,
Palermo, Elizabeth. “What Is Acupuncture?” LiveScience, Purch, 21 June 2017,
Preston, John. “Paul Feyerabend.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 21 Sept. 2016,
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“Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 25 Apr. 2019,“Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 25 Apr. 2019,

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