I received a thought-provoking email about my views on alternative medicine, and it seemed like a good opportunity to explain more clearly what I think.
This is an area beset by misconceptions and blurred terminology, to the extent that people can often end up arguing about completely different things without realising it. It’s also an area full of crooks, charlatans, liars and chancers on every side, ranging from the executives of the pharmaceutical companies to the frauds who sell sick people magic cures based on nothing but wishful thinking. There are vested interests attached to every aspect of wellness, and then there are well-meaning believers who simply don’t have the ability or the desire to think an issue through logically.
My position is very simple. There’s no such thing as mainstream treatment or alternative treatment. If it works, it’s treatment. If it works, it’s medicine. If it doesn’t work, at best, it’s an exercise or a health supplement. At worst, it’s a fraud that might persuade people away from life-saving therapies.
How do we know if it works? There’s only one way to be sure — we must test it rigorously. If it appears to work, we must conduct many more repeated tests to make sure it wasn’t just a fluke or a coincidence, and even then, when we accept that it has some beneficial effect, we must maintain a constant watch on it to make sure it doesn’t have damaging side-effects, or else that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. This is is called science and scientists are always open to new information, because otherwise, they wouldn’t be scientists.
Science is not a belief system. It doesn’t sit on one side of the argument or the other, because science isn’t a thing. Science is simply a systematic, logical, consistent way of looking at the world. The scientific approach, unlike religion, is constantly seeking to find flaws in its own argument in order to refine its models and theories. This is the very opposite of dogmatic, doctrinaire thinking and represents the very essence of open-mindedness.
Sometimes, the argument is made that a person who refuses to accept an unproven, untested remedy is being closed-minded, when of course, they’re simply refusing to accept somebody’s word without evidence. A closed-minded person is not someone who refuses to accept a new idea without question. That’s called naivety. The true closed-minded person is someone who refuses to question their own beliefs, which is the very antithesis of science.
There’s one particularly insidious kind of flawed argument that goes along these lines.
Traditional healers have known for millennia that gooseberries cure cancer, but Western scientists refuse to investigate the healing power of this miraculous plant.
Let’s be clear: there is no logical reason why anyone would research an unsubstantiated assertion about anything. If someone puts a proposition to you, the obligation is on them to support it. You have no obligation to give their idea a second thought, and certainly no obligation to spend time, energy and money investigating it. All that liability rests with them. If they fail to substantiate their claim, it’s their problem, not yours.
Demand to see the hard evidence that a remedy works before accepting it. No proposition has the right to be taken seriously without evidence. Otherwise, we’d live in a world where every lunatic was entitled to make up whatever nonsense came into their head, and every crazy idea would have the same validity as things that we consider established fact. There’s nothing strange or unusual about this approach. Even homeopaths, when they get outside their comfort zone, do this all the time. Next time you go to your local homeopath, tell them you heard about them from a talking purple unicorn and see what they think.
Besides, if Big Pharma thought gooseberries cured cancer, don’t you think they’d be falling over themselves to corner the market?
There’s also a mistaken belief about what constitutes information. Folk-beliefs are not information. Unchalllenged superstitions are not information. Strong feelings are not information. What some people call information can often be no more than a feeling or a hunch. Like it or not, the body is a physical entity. Signs of health or illness are visible, physical, observable characteristics, and the information about them needs to be likewise measurable and observable. There’s no point talking about auras and energies since these things are never defined and never observable. They’re poetic constructs, and there’s nothing wrong with poetry as long as you don’t confuse it with medicine, but you might as well say a prayer. It’s the same thing.
Sometimes, people who believe in alternative medicine invite the rest of us to collude in a set of beliefs as if these things were a given.
For example, we’re invited to accept that a worldwide conspiracy exists between the medical profession and Big Pharma, a conspiracy to hide cheap and efficacious remedies from those who need them. We’re also asked to agree that doctors take a mechanistic, chemical-based approach to healing and wellness.
Neither of these propositions are true, but they make useful straw men for those wishing to put up spurious arguments against rationality.
I heard an interview last week with Prof Risteard Mulcahy, a hugely eminent cardiologist in his time, who has reached his nineties and remains as sharp as a razor. If ever there was a pillar of the medical establishment, it’s Mulcahy, and yet, when the interviewer asked him the secret of a long life, he said nothing about pharmaceuticals, or surgery or medical intervention of any kind.
He said his secret was daily exercise, and his view echoes the approach of every medical practitioner I know. This is a holistic, minimalist approach that enriches no pharmaceutical company, and to suggest that doctors all over the world are somehow engaged in a huge cover-up is not simply insulting but downright silly and bordering on the paranoid.
I don’t doubt for a moment that cynical doctors exist, and I don’t dispute that the pharmaceutical industry is guilty of all manner of chicanery, fraud, trickery and criminal behaviour. You only have to look at the activities of the Burzynski Clinic if you want an example. But even if every single doctor in the world happened to be corrupt, and even if every last drug manufactured was a fake, would this automatically validate alternative remedies? Of course it wouldn’t. All remedies need to be rigorously tested, and that’s one thing that seems to be lamentably absent in the alternative industry which, by the way, is worth billions.
It’s a sad reflection on so-called alternative medicine when it has to invent a worldwide conspiracy and yet, paradoxically, I’m not saying we don’t need an alternative approach to medicine. Perhaps we do. What I’m saying is that there doesn’t seem to be anything the current crop of alternatives have in common apart from the fact that they’re untested and unproven, which doesn’t seem like a logical basis to form a corpus of knowledge.
Tell me the criterion. How does your treatment qualify to be called alternative? What is the defining characteristic? Could I invent any old bullshit and call it alternative? If not, will alternative practitioners please tell me what test I’d fail?
I’ve written many times about homeopathy and I won’t waste your time talking about it any further. It’s just water. The sales pitch is based on pseudoscientific twaddle, misusing the terminology of established science in a deeply cynical way. Water doesn’t have a memory and that’s that. When you take a homeopathic remedy, you’re drinking very expensive water.
Herbalism is a different matter. I have no doubt whatever that herbal remedies exist, but let’s look at this further because now we’re talking about active ingredients, otherwise known as chemicals. Most modern medicines are herbal remedies which is why we need to protect the rainforests worldwide: it’s where we find our drugs.
Essentially, a herbal remedy is the administration of a chemical drug without measuring the dose.
My correspondent asked me to comment on the placebo effect, so I will. The placebo effect is a well-established technique in medicine and is not regarded by scientists as any sort of intrusion. It’s a very interesting effect that is actively studied.
More specifically, the question asked is this:
Is the placebo effect responsible for all the thousands of people claiming healing from everything from prayer, homeopathy, herbalism, meditation, TCM to witchcraft?
That question carries so many assumptions within it that I can’t address it directly, because it invites me to agree with certain propositions before going on to answer it. That doesn’t work.
People claim healing from many things. Sometimes, their respite is due to natural remission. Sometimes the improvement is temporary. Sometimes the recovery is due to unrelated environmental effects. And sometimes people don’t tell the truth.
On a much more prosaic level, how many sure-fire hangover cures have you heard? People swear by them, and yet most of them are nonsense. This sort of anecdotal evidence carries no weight.
Likewise, proximity is a false measure. It makes no sense to say I prayed to St Raphael and my bunion went away. Well, maybe you did, but what does that prove? I’ve prayed to a non-existent deity that Munster would convert that try but I never thought my prayers were answered because there’s no evidence for it. ROG kicked it straight and all thanks go to him.
Cures need to be tested, and there are no logically-constructed, peer-reviewed studies showing that people were cured by prayer, homeopathy or witchcraft, but that’s by definition, since all believers in religion, homeopathy and witchcraft are, by definition, incapable of criticising what they believe in. Closed-minded, in other words.
What about meditation, herbalism and traditional Chinese medicine?
Well, meditation is always good for the person, but I’m not aware of any case where it cured cancer. I’ve already said what I think about herbalism, and as for traditional Chinese medicine, all I’ll say is this: rhino horn.
When comprehensive, peer-reviewed studies are published, it will no longer be called Traditional Chinese Medicine. It will simply be called medicine.
It amazes me that the terms alternative and complementary are always confined to medicine. If you were going on holidays, how would you feel about having an alternative pilot who doesn’t believe in the laws of physics?