“Tooth fairy science” is a term coined by Harriet Hall to denote clinical trials and studies done on the properties of a phenomenon before it has been established that the phenomenon exists. Of course, the results of such studies are really pure noise, but with a bit of ingenuity and lots of bias and p-hacking, you may still be able to produce outcomes that look like they are statistically significant. Many alternative therapies, and in particular TCM and acupuncture, are subject to massive amounts of tooth fairy science.
Chao Hsing Yeh may certainly look like a real scientist affiliated with Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, and she does ostensibly have training in science. But Yeh is also a significant promoter of pseudoscience, especially auricular point acupuncture (APA), and she buys into all the prescientific, vitalistic nonsense associated with it: Apparently, APA is “based on a concept called the meridian theory. It proposes that how you feel is governed by the flow of energy, or qi, through a network of invisible pathways that connect different organs in the body. Specific points on the ear correspond to specific areas of the brain, and these areas have a reflex connection with specific parts of the body. Stimulating the ear points can signal the brain to prompt reactions in the body to relieve symptoms, such as breast cancer-related pain.” This is pseudotheological gibberish, of course, and neither meridians nor qi have the remotest connection to reality. Nevertheless, Yeh “can always find a point on the ear to deliver treatment” if she tries, and did you know that the magic apparently works in part because the ear represents an “inverted fetus”?
Her 2015 study on APA in breast cancer patients, sadly funded by the American Cancer Society, is anyways a splendid example of tooth fairy science. It is discussed here. And yes, most of the typical trappings of tooth fairy science is there: a tiny sample, vaguely defined protocols (apparently the auricular points are not defined but vary with the whims of the patients and practitioners), an obscure methods sections, and, not the least, there is no evidence of blinding. And that should really tell you everything you need to know, since blinding would be really, really easy to do, and you are really allowed to wonder why the researchers dropped it. And to clinch it: in the results section, Yeh provides percentages supposed to show that the patients who received “genuine” APA experienced improvement, measured in percentages, whereas the control group experienced “moderate improvement” – no, we don’t actually get the specific figures. You can, however, derive them from some complex charts. As expected, it turns out that most of the differences were not statistically significant; a few were borderline significant, but with 18 different measures examined, apparently without corrections being made for multiple comparisons, you have a prime case of p-hacking. In short: this is a negative result. The study provides significant evidence that APA doesn’t work. This is not how Yeh spins the results.
Diagnosis: Not a wild-eyed New Age conspiracy theorist with a homepage and a youtube channel, perhaps, but given her academic affiliations the nonsense pseudoscience pushed by Yeh is all the more disturbing – and nonsensical pseudoscience it is, even if Yeh is able to describe it using scientific terms and something that only superficially looks like real studies.
Hat-tip: Respectful Insolence