Is there really an “alternative medicine” Or is the term just a semantic tool to disguise a profoundly anti-science stance?
We live in an age where medical advances have more than doubled our life expectancy over the course of the last century. We are are endowed with treatments, preventative measures, sanitation methods and food testing that would leave any previous civilisation in history in awe.
Yet, there exists a huge industry that parades itself as the medical science that has enriched our lives but rejects the methods of science. In other words, peddlers of this “other” medicine field can claim whatever they want to without submitting to the necessary research that would validate those claims. They want it all for no cost – a free pass on the coat tails of science. And even worse, they get away with it.
Folks, there is no “alternative medicine” – the semantic distinction foisted on the public is nothing but a semantic tool to paint real medicine as “the evil establishment” and create false legitimacy for junk medicine.
How can a system of supplements and “alternative” treatments continue to be sold to a willing public when no factual foundation for these quack cures exists? Robert Greene said it best in his book The 48 Laws of Power:
The truth is often avoided because it is ugly and unpleasant. Never appeal to truth and reality unless you are prepared for the anger that comes for disenchantment. Life is so harsh and distressing that people who can manufacture romance or conjure up fantasy are like oases in the desert: Everyone flocks to them. There is great power in tapping into the fantasies of the masses.
Skepticism and critical thinking are hard sells, no doubt. Where science shows the body to be a complex system, pseudoscience paints an easy to understand and magical explanation for the body. While the reasons people get sick are many and often complex, the simple panaceas sold to the public via “alternative medicine” are an alternatives to evidence-based medicine.
What’s the alternative to evidence? Crap-based claims. That’s right, once a departure is made from science and testing the claimant can claim anything. And they do. The number of quack cancer cures to be found on the internet is truly astounding – especially given none of these claims survive even the mildest of scientific scrutiny.
On a base level, the claim that a foot massage can help promote “wellness” in other parts of your body (reflexology), that water and sugar pills can heal your ills (homeopathy), or that acupuncture has any health benefits whatsoever are completely unsupported by the evidence. If any one of these “alternative” modalities were to be supported by solid clinical trial evidence then they would cease to be alternative and be accepted mainstream medical practices.
Some of the justifications people put in defense of junk medicine takes the form of “well, it’s been around for 1000’s of years” or “so many people believe in it, it has to work”. Of course, this eludes the only relevant question of all: “Has the claim been shown scientifically to work – is there any evidence for it?” The arguments from popularity and antiquity can be easily shown to be bad platforms to base beliefs – all one has to do is look around the world and how many people believe in some form of paranormal claim, usually based on “ancient wisdom”.
British philospher Betrand Russell summed it up best when he said:
The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd.
Most crap-based medicine claims originated before science. Before we had a germ theory of disease, before we knew how the human body worked, before medical techniques of 20th century standard had been developed.
Most scientific theories have emerged in the last 200 years, a significant proportion in the last quarter of that period. Medical or truth claims made before science hit the tipping point has been tested in light of relatively recent scientific standards. Homeopathy, acupuncture, reflexology, iridology and many more have been thoroughly falsified. Some claims have been discard as much as 100 years ago.
The only reason these pre-scientific modalities are still around today is because the crap-based logic and beliefs that underpin them are passed on. The ability for these ideas to survive owes in part to the ideology behind them – “us versus the establishment (science, medicine and big pharma)”. It is thanks to science that we are now firmly on solid ground in saying that modalities posing as alternatives to evidence-based medicine are at best elaborate placebos.
The hypotheses claimed by proponents of these alternatives do not use real science in their claims. After all, well-conducted studies that control for variables and bias are bad for business. Many claims didn’t have to be tested to be falsified anyway, as the suggested explanation by proponents is at odds with well established science.
There is no alternative medicine and in place of such a semantically loaded term I shall use the precise terminology used in The Science Based Medicine Blog. That definition is “crap-based medicine” and this is the subject I will explore with my skeptical eye in upcoming posts.