A friend of mine is practitioner of alternative medicine. Meanwhile, I am a scientist (of sorts) and a skeptic and I agree entirely with the notion of evidence-based medicine. Modern medicine is successful because it is science. We repeatedly test things and we use what works and reject what doesn’t.
The problem with alternative medicine is that it is not subject to this methodology. You’ll notice that if you buy a echinacea, for example, it makes claims on the bottle and then has a little warning that says these claims have not been proven or verified in the same way as pharmaceuticals.
Furthermore, things like acupuncture and chiropractic have often been proven to be ineffective.
So what’s at work here?
First of all, the placebo effect is well documented as being effective. If I give you a pill and tell you it will make you feel better, if you believe me, you will feel better. Placebos are good medicine in that they create favorable outcomes for many, many people.
Alternative medicine, taken in the worst light, probably acts as a placebo. And in that way, there is really nothing wrong with it.
But my friend makes more substantial arguments. His concern is holistic, meaning his goal is for people to actually be healthy. If, for example, you don’t exercise and your diet is shit, Lipitor will treat your high cholesterol. It won’t make you healthy. In fact, it enables you to be less healthy. He maintains that western medicine, in this case, has an effective drug but it does not have the right answer for getting and keeping people healthy.
He also feels that the statistical basis of “evidence based medicine” too often makes claims that are later invalidated. This is, in fact, true. Researchers continually confuse correlation with causation. They find barely significant results and get big headlines. Later, there are new headlines with contradictory results.
I don’t know what the answer is. Clearly modern medicine is indispensable, effective and necessary. Less clearly, but perhaps importantly, alternative medicine yields positive outcomes (a fact) and looks at health holistically, something sorely lacking in modern medicine. Your doctor should perhaps insist you get on the treadmill, get off the fast food and actually live a healthy lifestyle instead of relying on a pill to make it all better. A pill, I’ll add, that can have tangible side effects.
I’m as ready as most scientists to reject alternative medicine as complete bullshit. But my friend treats people who get better. He understands health in the big picture. He also knows when modern medicine is the correct approach. It makes me wonder whether there isn’t something we could learn from alternative medicine if we were a little more open minded.