October 5, 2004

A Quantitative Revolution in Acupuncture

By A. Araluppa Prem Kumar, MD (India), PhD

For more than 3,000 years, acupuncture has been confronted with problems of generalization and theory-building. In all of the other physical and social sciences, theory-building has a long tradition.

After World War II, acupuncturists, especially those of the developed countries, realized the significance of using scientific language rather than the language of Taoist philosophy. Consequently, abstract, descriptive language was discarded, and great stress was placed on the formulation of empirical models that needed rigorous thinking and the use of sophisticated statistical techniques. The diffusion of statistical techniques in acupuncture to make the subject and its theories more precise is known as a "quantitative revolution" in acupuncture.

Traditionally, acupuncture was considered a description of the cosmic relationship, both macroscopically and microscopically. In the due course of time, its definition and nature changed. Now it is concerned with providing accurate, orderly and rational descriptions and interpretations of the variable characters of the human system.

Today, many acupuncturists regard acupuncture as a science concerned with the rational development and testing of theories that explain and predict the spatial distribution and location of points (foramina) and various characteristics on the surface of the human body. To achieve this objective and obtain the real picture of a human system, acupuncturists began to use and apply quantitative tools and techniques to which qualitative acupuncture was opposed.

Thus, the most obvious change brought about by the "quantitative revolution" is the change of methods and techniques, and the extensive use of general system theory in acupuncture. New electronic devices have made possible the use of complex mathematical computations never before attempted. In the words of Felix Mann:

"Some people use an electrical instrument to measure the electrical skin resistance of impedance. The theory is that since the impedance is reduced at the acupuncture points, they can in this way be easily and accurately discovered. I have myself tried several types of experimental apparatus, but have found that the electrical resistance both in living bodies and cadavers varies in so many places, not only at the acupuncture points but thousands of others, that to me this apparatus is not of much use."

Merits of the Quantitative Revolution in Acupuncture

  1. The application of quantitative techniques led to the quantitative revolution in acupuncture. The quantitative revolution resulted in a radical transformation of the spirit and purpose of acupuncture, from a few to many.
  2. It was after the advent of the quantitative revolution that acupuncturists started concentrating more on field studies, generating primary data, utilizing secondary data and applying testing and sophisticated diagnostic techniques.
  3. The overenthusiasm of the present-day preachers of the quantitative revolution has, however, given way to the present phase in which mathematical and statistical methods are just one of many tools for approaching the problems in acupuncture.
  4. Today's quantitative revolution is more or less a religion to its followers. Its "golden calf" is the CMDS (computer meridian diagnostic system), which is a boon to therapeutic practitioners.


The advantages of quantitative techniques and their applications to the formulation of theory are many. All of the techniques are firmly based on empirical observation and are readily verifiable. With the help of quantitative techniques and multitudinous observations, it can be reduced to a manageable number of factors. In the social sciences in general, and in acupuncture in particular, statistical techniques allow the formulation of structured ideas and theories that can be tested under assumed conditions.

Demerits of the Quantitative Revolution

The disadvantages of the application of quantitative techniques also cannot be ruled out. The theories and models developed on the basis of empirical data do not take into consideration the normative questions like beliefs, emotions, attitudes, desires, hopes and fears, and therefore cannot be taken as the tools to explain exact realities. Moreover, the overenthusiastic preachers have sacrificed many good qualitative statements on Taoism, which were quite useful in the interpretation of human personalities. Quantitative techniques also demand considerable mathematical powers and sophisticated data, which are rarely attainable outside the developed countries. As a matter of fact, the data collected in developing countries like India have many pitfalls and shortcomings. A theory developed on the basis of weak data and unreliable information is bound to give only a distorted and faulty picture of reality. It has been found that the generalizations performed with the help of these techniques bring about exaggerated results, and thus, much of the time, acupuncturists are found to be "cutting their fingers" with these sharp tools. Perhaps the most difficult problem to overcome is the one posed by the costly apparatus used for testing. Sometimes it depends on the use of costly computers (CMDS) and thus entails considerable financial assistance. This is rarely available to the individual TCM researcher in a developing nation. It is because of these constraints that acupuncturists have yet to evolve models that can be applied and tested.


The quantitative revolution as stated above began in the developed nations of the West, where theories and models were constructed on the basis of data collected. There is certainly a danger that the models developed in Europe and America may be elevated to general truth and universal models. In reality, we do not have a given universal behavioral pattern of humans. There are different urban and agrarian processes working in different parts of the world, which lead to different cultural, etc. patterns of human behavior. Owing to this factor, generalization on the basis of quantitative techniques may be misleading and negative instead of positive. In brief, the quantitative revolution also may not enable the acupuncturist to form universal laws and paradigms.


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