By definition, I begin
Alternative Medicine, I continue
Has either not been proved to work,
Or been proved not to work.
You know what they call alternative medicine
Thats been proved to work?
– Tim Minchin, “Storm”
Ancient arts that hold the secret of a long, healthy life, and relief from all that ails you. Herbal remedies for everything from headaches to cancer. Magnetic bracelets that make you faster, stronger, smarter, and more energetic. Treatments that “big pharma” doesn’t want you to know about, because they can’t make money on them: order now for three easy payments of $29.95. Many of the purveyors of alternative medicine and alternative therapies may very well believe their own claims, but, good intentions or not, they’re usually making a profit from the desperate and the gullible.
Skeptic James Randi frequently gives public talks that touch on alternative medicines. To demonstrate his point, he’ll often bring along a full bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills and crunch on handfuls of them all through his talk. Randi is thin and in his 80s – and so far the massive homeopathic doses haven’t slowed him down. (Though they might have elevated his blood sugar level.)
AcupunctureSure, it’s been around for a long time. From AIDs to erectile dysfunction to stroke, acupuncture has been used to treat just about any affliction. It’s even gone high-tech, with some practitioners replacing needles with low-intensity lasers. But is there any evidence that this ancient art, involving the jabbing of pins into the body to manipulate alleged invisible energy fields, actually works?
Well, the good old placebo effect gets in our way here again. There have been some apparent successes with acupuncture, that seem to suggest it works, to a limited degree, in some situations. (Lots of studies in the far east have “proved” its effectiveness, but try finding one that was done under properly controlled double-blind conditions.) But here’s where the arguments for acupuncture truly fall apart: fake acupuncture works as well as “real” acupuncture. That means if you laid down on a table and I, with no mastery of any ancient Chinese Art of Anything, started poking you in the buttocks with pointy things, I would statistically have an equal chance of curing your headache as would the wizened guru who interrupted his mountaintop meditation to see to your needs. Maybe better, because I’d slip you an aspirin afterward.
Chiropractic MedicineThe chiropractic industry is a large, powerful, and wealthy one, owing much of its success to having the financial resources to lobby government regulators and sue its detractors (as the American Medical Association found out after its “Committee on Quackery” dismissed chiropractic in the 70s, and as journalist Simon Singh found out recently in the UK).
Chiropractors claim that most ailments are caused by misalignment of the spine called “subluxations”, and thus can be cured through proper spinal alignment. They’ll site numerous studies they claim point to successful medical outcomes through their intervention, but opponents argue that none of these studies has shown any significant statistical advantage over other forms of http://oneyellow.com/ID/16379537 treatment, including such radical steps as weight loss, exercise, resting, or doing nothing.
They’re right, though, that the spine is kind of important. That’s why manipulating it, especially with tools, can be dangerous. Chiropractic techniques have been blamed for stroke, paralysis, and fractures; there’s even a support group for its victims.
There are, in fact, herbal solutions that can improve your health. There are vitamin and mineral supplements that can help to address health problems. Their effectiveness varies widely, is sometimes poorly understood, overestimated, or, often, the evidence gathered so far is conflicting or inconclusive. But there are many items in this broad category that probably actually work, to one degree or another, and depending on what form and what concentration they’re delivered in.
Unfortunately, there’s a huge industry that wants to sell you this stuff whether it works or not, and which counts on the average consumer’s difficulty in getting unbiased information about the various claims made for its products. Profit margins and propaganda are a dangerous combination. So how can you protect yourself from getting medical advice based more on economics than science?
One way to try to verify a product’s health claims is to look for studies about the efficacy of whatever substance is being advertised as beneficial. Not studies conducted by the vendor, either – you’re looking for research done by real universities or hospitals, and ideally both short and long term studies. Often there will be helpful (somewhat) plain-language summaries of these studies available at various places on the internet. Another step is to become familiar with internet resources like The Skeptic’s Dictionary, Quackwatch, and others. There’s an amazing herbal/supplement interactive infographic at InformationIsBeautiful, though it’s not clear how often it gets updated. Be aware of some of the buzzwords that are often used to lend a scientific air to what would otherwise easily be written off as nonsense.
Above all, approach any medical claim with a healthy but open-minded skepticism. Look for evidence, not anecdote, and be aware that miracle cures seldom are, no matter how much you’d like them to be. Keep in mind that for all its shortcomings and all that it has yet to figure out, modern medicine has a far better track record than any other method when it comes to sending people home alive and well.