Can Acupuncture Be Explained Through Science?
By Rob Benhuri
People ask me all the time if I believe in science. This is a strange question, since science is the systematic study of nature using the scientific method. Science is not an end unto itself, nor is it an organized system of beliefs. As such, there really is no way to legitimately have or lack belief in science. One can only agree or disagree with the conclusions of certain scientific experiments. But I digress…
The more interesting question, and the one I think people really mean to ask me, is this: Can acupuncture be explained through science?
The answer is yes—but not yet. Remember that science is not a system of set beliefs. Rather, it is an ever-expanding process of understanding the world around us through testing hypotheses. Science eventually will be able to explain acupuncture if we continue to study it.
In recent years there have been a great number of attempts to explain acupuncture through a scientific lens. Like everyone on either side of this debate, I have strong opinions, but for the purposes of this article, suffice it to say that objectively speaking, we cannot explain acupuncture through science.
Now, with that in mind, is acupuncture still a valid form of healthcare?
Unequivocally, yes. Our current inability to explain acupuncture’s mechanism of action through the scientific method does not invalidate the experience of billions of people over thousands of years. In fact, this experience mandates scientific inquiry.
All scientific discoveries are predicated by experience and circumstantial evidence, which leads to eventual understanding. Through the observation of initial experiences comes a hypothesis, then an objective attempt to test that hypothesis in an appropriate setting. Experiences cannot be deemed invalid or “unscientific” just because they’re unexplainable within contemporary parameters.
Science could never have advanced at all if we only accepted observable phenomenon that conformed to our understanding at that time.
The classic example of this is gravity. Was it a mistake for every known civilization to utilize gravity before Newton explained it mathematically? Think of all the pyramids that never would have been built! What would we have thought of a skeptic who claimed gravity was unscientific and therefore should be avoided until double-blind clinical trials proved its efficacy?
Obviously, we’re better off for having accepted gravity as a reality and then opening our minds to determine how it works rather than insisting that gravity conform to pre-Newtonian ideas of the world.
Don’t like the gravity example? After all, gravity is a natural phenomenon while acupuncture is an intervention designed by human beings. In that case, let’s think about fire.
The controlled act of setting and sustaining fire, to early humans, was miraculous. Fire’s initial purpose most likely was to keep warm, but eventually the use of fire expanded to such things as easing pain, cooking, warding off predators, and providing light so that socialization could extend past sunset. Now imagine an early human refusing the benefits of fire until she could design a cave drawing that precisely captured the process of friction heating wood to its ignition temperature.
Where would we be today if our ancestors had demanded that fire be used only according to their understanding of the world rather than evolve that understanding to encompass a mysterious phenomenon?
While we clearly gained a lot from both gravity and fire before they were scientifically validated, it is also true that the benefits were compounded exponentially as scientific understanding deepened. I believe the same eventually will be said of acupuncture.
Acupuncturists and their patients should strongly support and participate in attempts to explain acupuncture through the scientific method. Not only will this allow us to more effectively deliver quality acupuncture to a greater number of people, but it also will advance science—and expand our understanding of the world.
Photo by Sara Calabro