Pseudoscientific Chinese Medicine infiltrates scientific publishing

So it turns out that Chinese Medicine has its own journal, published by BioMed Central, a large scientific publisher. The Chinese Medicine journal promotes, according to its own mission statement, studies of "acupuncture, Tui-na, Qi-qong, Tai Chi Quan, energy research," and other nonsense. Tui na, for example, supposedly "affects the flow of energy by holding and pressing the body at acupressure points."

Right. What is this doing in a scientific journal? Actually, there are plenty of garbage journals out there, and I'd ignore this one like I do the others, but BioMed Central (and their owner, Springer Science) is a respectable publisher. It's also one of the largest open-access publishers, which means they make all their articles from their 213 journals freely available. I support BMC and I'm on the Editorial Boards for three of their journals (BMC Biology, BMC Genomics and BMC Bioinformatics). But their corporate leaders seem to care more about expanding their stable than about maintaining the integrity of science. Chinese Medicine simply does not belong in the company of respectable scientific journals.

What is "Chinese Medicine" anyway? (Should we also have journals for Russian Medicine, or American Medicine, or Swedish Medicine?) Actually, the name refers to what is usually called Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM. TCM is a grab-bag of superstitious practices taken from Chinese history, most of which are ineffective or even harmful. The most common justification for studying TCM (and using it on patients) is something along the lines of "this is an ancient Chinese practice" as if anything old must be worthwhile (also known as the argument from antiquity, a logical fallacy). But using the term "medicine" to describe Qi-gong, acupuncture, and "energy research" is, to put it bluntly, nonsense.

And by the way, "energy research" in this context doesn't refer to methods for producing electricity. No, the energy research in this journal refers to mysterious energy fields in the body, stuff like the "deqi" in this article from the January 2011 issue of Chinese Medicine: "Perception of Deqi by Chinese and American acupuncturists: a pilot survey." It's a laughably bad study, but here's a link for those with a high tolerance for quackery.

Ancient medicine was almost always bad medicine. People died very, very early in those good old days, and ancient China didn't have any special secrets. 2000 years ago, if you were lucky enough to survive past childood, you might just make it to your 30's. Life expectancy has climbed dramatically in recent times, for the past 150 years or so, thanks to modern hygiene and medicine. So forming a scientific journal whose goal is to validate antiquated, unproven superstitions is simply not science, whatever the editors of Chinese Medicine claim. The journal's claim to be "evidence-based" (yes, they do claim that) is little more than a smoke screen.

BioMed Central publishes at least one other pseudoscience journal, BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. BMC should be embarrassed to be publishing journals that promote anti-scientific theories and otherwise muddy the literature. By supporting these journals, they undermine the credibility of many excellent BMC journals. They should cut these journals loose.


  1. This is complete bullshit. You don't know anything about Chinese medicine and you haven't experienced Chinese medicine, but for some reason you are criticizing it?

    As a child my body was weak and I was sick at least once every week and had a fever every other week. My parents tried to give me all kinds of medicine but none of them worked. Then they took me to a traditional Chinese doctor in China and he prescribed me a formula of herbs. After drinking it for a few weeks, it greatly strengthened my immune system and I rarely got sick from that point on. I'm a firm believer in Chinese medicine because I have personally benefitted greatly from it.

    And as a sidenote, why are you using a South Park picture when you're trying to prove a point? Do you really think South Park can give you any kind of credibility? I really don't understand how you are a professor, because a real professor's blog entry would be a lot more professional than yours. Please find something better to do than try to debase things that you know nothing about.

  2. There we go... it worked for this one guy! Let the science begin!

  3. why don't you prove that it doesn't work for anyone instead of using your own bias to come at something you know nothing about?

  4. I'm not going to comment on whether or not Chinese Medicine is real or not real - it is beside the point. The point is you are a scientist who didn't read the paper you characterize as "a laughably bad study" in order to make your point.

    I just read it. The article is simply a survey of acupuncturists' opinions about what defines a certain type of pain and what they think about the efficacy of their treatments for that pain. I don't think this is a laughably bad study. I think it is a report of results of a pilot survey conducted with people who engage in similar activities.

    The survey could have been conducted with scientists (like you) and their opinions on the same topic. Those results likely would have been different.

    You look stupid. Your opinion about this article is not based in evidence because you didn't read it. You're not alone - many researchers today don't read.

  5. Generally I delete comments from commenters - like Anonymous above - who think it's okay to post rude, insulting remarks. But I wanted to rebut his point, briefly. In short, a survey of acupuncturists' opinions is, as I wrote originally, a laughably bad excuse for a paper. If you look at the journal's website, you will see it listed as "Research", which indicates how low the standards of that journal are. So yes, I did read it. And I stand by my original characterization.

  6. Why dont you have a dialog with your colleagues,
    "A team of over 35 staff and faculty members inspires and drives our work forward."

    The doors are open to you any time and we welcome some useful discussions instead of spewing this garbage on your blog which might help your ego but does nothing but hurt the University Of Maryland and your colleagues.

  7. Well, a phrase like "spewing out this garbage" isn't exactly welcoming. But I disagree about it hurting UMD - on the contrary, I think it will strengthen UMD if we get rid of bad science, wherever we find it.

  8. Hi,

    I'm a person who loves logic, has a cynical non whoo-doo-vodoo core. I got sucked into being an acupuncturist after seeing how effective it was for a group with multifactial emotional and physical problems in the prior field i was in (addiction). It's an wonderful job and I get incredible results week in week out using the T.C.M theoretical and practical toolbox..

    Anyway I wouldn't begin to try and change your mind it's not a paradigm that lends itself well to the scientific method and I see the results on a daily basis as a practitioner so I'm happy with that.

    But what I just wanted to say (yes via a circuitous and kind of long winded manner) was firstly - what a hilarious cartoon, I'll be passing it on to my friends and secondly I do hope (out of some kind of curiousity) you find an excellent practitioner and check it out experientially.

    1. The placebo effect is very powerful. That's what you're seeing. Here's something you should watch to cure you of your delusions.
      Chinese witchdoctors don't even need to be as clever as this guy. They work with the patient's conditioning and expectations and lay some (not so subtle) suggestions. Less pain for people is good so keep it up, but don't claim you are doing anything other than an ancient parlor trick.

    2. I love how people always cite "the placebo effect blah blah blah" when modern science is yet to even prove how it works or even explain it in any way shape or form. Don't be so arrogant when you don't fully understand the basis of your argument

  9. I find it hilarious that people who write under the "anonymous" label expect their "opinion" to be taken into consideration. Such "comments" speak for themselves....
    What worries me most is that these people may actually hold degrees in science.

  10. This is an utterly biased article. And irresponsibly demotes things outside one's system as nonsense.

    Relative to the Chinese civilization which has brought modern nincompoops some of the things we enjoy now, such as Chinese Alchemy, gunpowder, ammonia and the alkaloids we have extracted from most of the herbs that the Chinese have studied and concocted for thousands of years, our modern understanding are also nonesense.

    It is also irresponsible to claim that "People died very, very early in those good old days, and ancient China didn't have any special secrets." This is an unsupported generalization that is not only insulting to the Chinese civilization but totally false. Their treatises boast of human longevity. Even their artwork depict really old men with beards reaching their ankles.

    If superstition be the point, our theory of the atom is superstition to them as well. They call it Qi, we call it energy.

  11. Please pass his article to Harvard, Sanford, and the United States Military. The Medical Acupuncture programs are expanding out of control. As a licensed Acupuncturist, I was treating an Army doc in my clinic last night who informed me of rapid expanding use of acupuncture in the Army by a myriad of practitioner types.

  12. You can not blame a long-history medicine "pseudo", just because of your lack of knowledge in it.

  13. I like how "Anonymous" can't even identify what ailed him in the first comment yet he demands that we accept his evidence that TCM works.

    Sorry buddy but anecdotal evidence for non specific conditions from anonymous sources does not constitute evidence. TCM is nothing but snake oil in a Chinese bottle.

  14. Haha Chinese medicine is bullshittt theres no evidence that it works, and dont give me "oh worked for me as a child"...ever heard of placebo effect, my friend? And no, powdered foetus will NOT make you younger.

  15. Matthew Morgan (Engineer)June 3, 2012 at 2:46 AM

    Well how much do you really know about TCM yourself Anonymous? Can you provide the us, for example, what is the active chemical ingredient(s)in bear bile and/or tiger penis that is supposed to do whatever it is supposed to do? Vague notions about energy levels and other mumbo jumbo will not answer this question. However, more to the point I wish to make. TCM is protected by the Chinese Constitution so it has a huge weight of (political) authority behind it. Add to this the argument from antiquity, as Professor Steven Salzberg points out and you have an immovable object. This seems to me an expedient way for the Government to abdicate its responsibility in providing Western medicine. How come the rest of the world has moved on? .. and do you really think the Communist leaders (who generally send their children to Australian, European and American Universities) really believe TCM benefits the good people of China? I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that you've been duped by culture and politics. Don't worry, Western Medicine is vulnerable to rubbish told to us by 'Big Pharma' too. The difference is, the truth eventually gets out. This is a hard task when faced with a totalitarian regime. I think if the protection for TCM is ever dropped in China, more people would be free to speak their minds and you would quickly find yourself in a minority Anonymous. An Anonymous Minority no less...

  16. oh dear ... poor "anonymous" (who ever they/she/he are/is)! Placebo is a strong invisible force field! I agree with Steven ... BMC should be embarrassed! I'm also on a couple of the BMC edit board (most recent of note, the BGI led GigaScience :) ... I will chat with them about this!

  17. I live in China. My 5 year old daughter had a fever while I was working out of town, and my Chinese wife decided to avoid the actual hospital and go the Chinese medicine way. When I returned, my daughter was vomiting, had a fever of 39, and had no energy. My wife tried to convince me that "this is China, this is how we do it and it works fine". I said F that and took her to the hospital. Turns out she had pneumonia and had to be monitored for 48 hours because it had gotten to such a bad stage.

    I don't know anything about Chinese medicine. What I do know is "going the traditional Chinese way" almost killed my daughter. At this point, I let my wife do whatever magic bean crap she wants to do, but I do have an "actual doctor" on my speed dial who will make house calls when needed. I will never substitute real medicine for this stuff.

    Go ahead, tell me I'm wrong, shoot me a pile of links with evidence and scientific research and whatever... it doesn't change the fact that this voodoo crap just about killed a 5 year old girl.

    Granted, it's a little different when you're in China, as the "Chinese medicine" can be bought at markets where it's all completely fake.

  18. I always wondered how one 1 single remedy can cure so many differed illnesses and improve almost every aspects of your health, how did they even know? Looks to me like a marketing gimmick that only works in places that are not so prosperous in the medical department.

    Take for example birdnest, i'm sure a lot of you heard cases of 30s-40s females attributed their younger(compared to their age) complexion to the consumption of birdnest or certain herbs, but you did'n heard anything from those who take the same product yet shown no improvement. The odds are like luck.

  19. If a placebo works? then is it still a placebo. The nature of the question does a placebo work? Contradicts itself. Therefore if a placebo has an effect it cannot be just a placebo.

    Besides there are oodles of research explaining acupuncture and Chinese medicine. I saw a Thorough RCT showing the hormonal effects that acupuncture has on the body, it reduces cortisol levels. Cortisol is a primary stress hormone. When at elevated levels the body long term effects can lead to higher rates of inflammation all over the body. Thus it serves to hormonal optimise the body. Just one of many reason why acupuncture works




    science is based on two words.

    1. experiment. evidence...

    2. publication of results for other reproduce...

    All experiments can be reproduced in the lab / lab /lab.

    I say publish all they want.

    world can see if it is real/fake real/hoax. yes/no..

    is this real/fake medicine????

  21. TCM: Lets kill all of the rhinos and snort their horns next lets kill all of the big cats and eat their d!cks after that lets kill all the bears and drink their bile, humm what else can we kill? Oh well all is well because we did it in the name of "science"

    The TCM scientific method.

    1. Make an observation in an antiquated superstitious text that is based on metaphysics regarding the health befits of a plant or animal part in the treatment of a condition.

    2. Kill an animal or plant dry it out and grind it up.

    3. Analyze the "extract" for a novel compound.

    4. Make unfounded health claims regarding the potency of your new compound in treating the condition (referred to in step 1) based on a series of incomplete & meaningless "experiments".

    5. Publish in a Springer Science journal.

  22. This reminds me of the debate whether the earth is round. Ignorance results in arrogance, but good that human are still learning and getting enlightened, along with time. Let the ignorant be. Let the enlightened enjoy the benefits


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