Recent discussions on the alternative veterinary medicine e-mail list and on Pet Connection have made me think more about Cognitive Dissonance and the other ways humans can deceive themselves. Prometheus at Photon in the Darkness coincidentally has an excellent post up about cognitive dissonance today.
Unfortunately, Narda Robinson seems to be an excellent example of cognitive dissonance as well. For those of you who are not familiar with Dr. Robinson, she is the Director of Colorado State University's Center for Integrative Pain Medicine. While she seems to be very skeptical and science based in her analysis of many alternative modalities such as homeopathy, herbal medicine, and others, she often credulously endorses Reiki and possibly therapeutic touch, and teaches a $4,400 dollar course in acupuncture at CSU. She has studied the "neuroanatomical" approach to acupucture for many years. There is no doubt that sticking needles into living bodies causes a reaction in the nervous system. This reaction seems to include an effect on nerve transmission and can cause the release of endorphins in the central nervous system. The question is, does this have any significant clinical effect? Increasingly, the answer seems to be no.
Detailed and well-referenced discussions of the scientific evidence for the efficacy of acupunture are available here, and here. The acupucture archive at Science-Based Medicine is well worth a look as well. In short, the development of sham acupucnture procedures such as placing needles in random points, the use of fake needles that do not puncture the skin but appear to and tricking patients into thinking they are being needled by using things like toothpicks to create an illusion of being needled all seem to be as effective as "real" acupucture. This would indicate that the act of inserting needles has a potent psycological effect that can induce a placebo efect in humans, and possibly animals as well. (My previous post discussing the placebo effect in animals and their owners shows how thismight happen.) People often like to do something, indeed anything to help alleviate their animal's suffering. Unforunately, using an inefective or minimally effective treatment may convince the owner and veterinarian that they are helping, but the animal may still be suffering.
This is my foremost concern with the promotion of veterinary acupuncture. It is quite common for the proponents of veterinary acupuncture to claim that acupucture can reduce the need for anesthetic drugs, or help with postoperative pain and chronic pain. This may result in the use of inadequate doses of other, effective analgesic drugs and techniques. Veterinary pain relief has come a long way in the past few decades, and acupuncture to me seems to be a step backward rather than an improvement.
The reason I think that Dr. Robinson is an excellent example of cognitive dissonance is because she tries to force unscientific isdeas into her inconsistent idea of what the evidence shows. A true scientist and skeptic will put all their ideas, no matter how treasured, to the test of the evidence. While acupuncture is more plausible than homeopathy, the results of the best trials do not show much effect. Dr. Robinson and CSU are making a lot of money from their courses in acupucture and from treating pets with acupucture and other therapies with weak evidence. It is their responsibility to produce good evidence or effectiveness or to stop deluding themselves and others.