Alternative Medicine

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.

Alternative Medicine

7 thoughts on “Alternative Medicine

  1. Cairnarvon says:

    So your solution to fallible doctors and whatnot is to move large chunks of healthcare into the hands of untrained, unlicensed “counselors of health”?

    The thing about things that work, like balanced diets and the like, is that they are by definition not alternative medicine. They’re medicine.
    They aren’t necessarily medication as such, but they’re still well within the purview of modern healthcare.
    Yes, it’s true that some (far fewer than you’d think) old remedies worked and inspired modern treatments, but to say that it’s okay for random quacks to advise people to use those old remedies rather than the modern medication, which is both more effective and carefully regulated (willow bark extract may contain salicylic acid, but it also contains a variety of other, far less pleasant elements), is another matter entirely.

    It’s true that the US has a shortage of GPs, and that the healthcare system in the US is broken to the point where many physicians can’t provide optimal treatment, but the answer is not to bring in unlicensed alternative medicine clowns, even if they’re only giving real advice based in modern medicine (as with apples), administering placebo-based “treatment” while also being aware that’s what they’re doing, and pointing serious patients in the direction of real doctors, all of which you know perfectly well the vast majority of them just don’t do.
    Healthcare is too important to leave it to laymen. Especially incredibly credulous laymen.

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  2. No, you’re being idealistic and trying to imply that modern medicine == science. We both know modern medicine != science. modern medicine == science + doctors who are fallible and often non holistic + Big Pharm + patients who want an easy way out + a bunch of other ugly realities.

    In such an imperfect world there may be a place for people like my friend who essentially act as counselors of health, recommending modern medicine when necessary and prescribing non-medicine substances when necessary. I know that last point bothers you but an apple is a non-medicine substance. Some herbs have been found, scientifically, to be beneficial.

    If you are defining science as everything that works and non-science as everything that doesn’t work a) we agree and b) you have to admit that things like apples and some herbs do in fact “work”. Aspirin is a refined substance from an ancient remedy made from willow bark. That willow bark still works. Not as well as aspirin, but it works. Other substances like that exist as well. You can’t paint a broad brush and say that only substances manufactured by Big Pharm work. My friend gives out advice and substances that make people healthier. He also send them to a doctor when necessary.

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  3. Cairnarvon says:

    The influence of Big Pharma has no bearing on the alternative medicine debate, in the same way that the fact that some teachers will teach creationism even if expressly forbidden don’t have any bearing on the evolution/creationism debate.

    In the end, I’m not taking issue with science, I’m taking issue with the notion that “health” is something that science alone can address.

    Then you are taking issue with science. There is nothing else.

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  4. I agree with you. But as a good socialist you should be at least a wee bit wary of the influence of gigantic pharmaceutical companies as they corrupt “science” for capital gains. Science isn’t pure in practice, unfortunately, and these big companies have a vested interest in making us all believe that we can’t be healthy without them.

    In the end, I’m not taking issue with science, I’m taking issue with the notion that “health” is something that science alone can address. I think part of what “alternative medicine” does is address the parts that science can’t address.

    But I don’t want to leave anyone the wrong impression, I think alternative medicine is 99% quakery.

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  5. Cairnarvon says:

    On the other hand, as my friend points out, if you measure results by favorable outcomes as perceived by the patient, alternative medicine is effective.

    The placebo effect is well understood, and a big part of any real treatment as well. Alternative medicine is not more effective than the placebo effect (as studies have shown), and for any serious illness, the placebo effect is very inadequate.

    And the problem with legitimising alternative medicine when it comes to minor things is that it leads people to believing they have credibility when it comes to more serious issues as well, and then you get things like assholes trying to treat cancer homeopathically. This isn’t some harmless fun.

    I’m just trying to understand why modern medicine is so willing to reject the accumulated wisdom of the last 100,000 years in regards to health and trust solely in marginally significant statistical studies.

    Except that it really doesn’t, despite what these quacks are so fond of claiming.
    There are no treatments based on marginally statistically significant studies. There is research that produces those studies, and the media are fond of reporting those when they sound good, but before any of that makes it into an actual treatment it’ll be subject to much, much more testing, and if the original research is indeed shoddy, it will be dismissed. The shittiness of the news media is no reflection on the science of modern medicine. You should know these things.

    When these quacks go on about the knowledge of the ancients, they conveniently forget that modern medicine has its roots in this very knowledge, only the scientific method has stripped it of all the nonsense (and greatly expanded the legitimate stuff with modern research, obviously). The “alternative” way of doing things seems to pride itself on dismissing all the modern advances and bringing back the discarded woo.

    Your friend may be smart and honest, he’s also misinformed and just plain wrong.

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  6. I was trying, and apparently failing, to communicate my friends view. He is smart and honest and just looks at this stuff differently. I’m trying to see the middle path. Perhaps I should try to get him to explain this.

    But it IS true that bad science leads people to believe things that are wrong. On the other hand, as my friend points out, if you measure results by favorable outcomes as perceived by the patient, alternative medicine is effective.

    I’m on your side, Cairnarvon, I’m just trying to understand why modern medicine is so willing to reject the accumulated wisdom of the last 100,000 years in regards to health and trust solely in marginally significant statistical studies.

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  7. Cairnarvon says:

    If all your doctor does for your high cholesterol is perscribe Lipitor, that’s a failing of your doctor, not of real medicine, and it’s a failing that could get his license revoked in many places. Every single doctor worth his money will also encourage patients to stop destroying their own health.

    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.

    Are you seriously suggesting the fact that science occasionally makes mistakes (and the fact that the press is willing to blow everything out of proportion) means that people who make shit up are more effective?

    This post is disappointing. Do better, lolife.

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