Weird Medicine

Feeling funky yet?

I began to wonder what was really going on when my own family began telling me of their positive experiences with alternative medicine. The first lesson I learned was not to ask too many questions. As a result I only began asking more.

To be fair, I once flirted with alternative treatments myself. I’ve always suffered severe allergies and hay fever. Some years ago in New York, a colleague suggested I visit her acupuncturist in Chinatown. “He did miracles for my back,” she said. Desperate for anything that worked (or might) I made an appointment at his office on Canal Street.

I went only twice. Perhaps deep down I was just a skeptical 26-year-old. I recall the quick tap of an index finger and the needles sinking into the skin of my face. I felt less pain than constant pressure, especially when the needles were twisted in. I now know they were supposed to touch a meridian, which channels the Ch’i, or life force. The needles were then hooked up to what appeared to be a Ham radio. The doctor left me there for almost an hour. When I walked out into the street I was convinced I felt better. Then again, I had just shelled out $50 and my face hurt.

But my allergies didn’t dwindle. True, I didn’t complete the treatment, leaving me to wonder what if

Having just finished reading Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst’s Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial I can safely say I’m glad I never returned to Canal Street for anything more than a cheap meal. Singh and Ernst studied scientific evidence culled from many trials, discarded the results from unreliable ones, and provide a useful overview of what works and what doesn’t.

They concentrate on the four “respectable” alternative treatments: acupuncture, chiropractic therapy, homeopathy and herbal medicine. An appendix deals briefly with the borderlands of alternative medicine: crystal therapy, ear candles, Reiki, Feng Shui.

When faced with rigorous testing, none of the four major therapies appear to be anything more than a placebo. That means whatever’s “working” is pretty much wishful thinking coupled with a wish to feel that your money, time and trust have been well-invested.

This should come as no surprise based on the founding principles of chiropractic (“innate energy”), acupuncture (Ch’i, meridians) and homeopathy (“memory” water). Herbal remedies fared slightly better, but the authors warn strongly against misuse and fraudulent marketing. They conclude that there’s really no such thing as “alternative medicine.” Either something works, in which case it is “medicine;” or it doesn’t, in which case it isn’t.

There are surprises on almost every page. Most homeopathic remedies don’t contain a molecule of their original substance. Frequently, they’re watered down millions of times, intended to make them even more potent! They are said to retain the “memory” of the original tincture, often made from soaking a root or leaf in a vial of water. When they reach the market, they’re often just pure water with a hefty price tag.

Acupuncture had been pretty much discredited in China until Chairman Mao decided it would be a great way to revive national “tradition.” The authors quote him as saying, “Even though we should promote Chinese medicine, I personally do not believe in it. I don’t take Chinese medicine.”

Now back to my family. My mother believes she has been cured of her lifelong allergies through a treatment called Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Technique, or NAET. This involves holding small glass vials of “essences” to which one is allergic — things like chocolate and nuts in her case — while a therapist does acupuncture on the patient. When I asked my mother how it worked, she shrugged and said, “How do I know? It just does.”

Further questioning prompted her to phone the therapist. “Hello, Fran? My son would like to ask you a few questions about allergy treatment. He thinks you’re a witchdoctor.” Then she passed me the phone.

Our conversation lasted for a few minutes. Fran enthusiastically explained how NAET is supposed to work. She more than once dropped big-sounding words like “energy” and “mind-body.” “But how do you know this stuff really works?” I pressed. “Listen,” she said confidently, “I could cure your mother’s allergies over the phone.”

That was it for me. My mother was the helpless victim of an alternative therapy guru. Her belief in the efficacy of prayer was already a bone in my throat. Now NAET and acupuncture. What was next, 2012?

When I voiced my skepticism to my sister — herself a part-time believer in alternative therapy — she rightly pointed out that the glass vials were probably just a placebo. It was the acupuncture that really did the trick.

That last word was telling.

Published in The American

Word of the Day: Apophenia

According to Wikipedia, apophenia is:

the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”.

Robert Todd Carroll elaborates in Skepdic:

In statistics, apophenia is called a Type I error, seeing patterns where none, in fact, exist. It is highly probable that the apparent significance of many unusual experiences and phenomena are due to apophenia, e.g., ghosts and hauntings, EVP, numerology, the Bible code, anomalous cognition, ganzfeld “hits”, most forms ofdivination, the prophecies of Nostradamus, remote viewing, and a host of other paranormal and supernatural experiences and phenomena.

Carroll has characterized Jung’s concept of syncronicity, where unrelated phenomena and mere concidence are supposed to be of wondrous portent, as “but an expression of apophenia.”

Don’t Get Scammed

I spent most of the last week reading Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst’s Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial. Besides being written in clear, understandable English – always a plus – the book is full of information that might save you from getting scammed. Because this – the issue of whether placebos count as valid treatment aside – is what’s at stake with most alternative medicine.

In fact, the term “alternative medicine” is an oxymoron. It’s like saying “right” is “alternative left,” or that there is “science” and “alternative science.” There is science and pseudoscience. When a new remedy or treatment is proven to work, it stops being alternative and becomes medicine. Alternative medicine is akin to quackery. As Robert Todd Carroll of Skepdic puts it:

What quackery lacks in scientific study it sometimes makes up for by prescribing generous portions of caring—sometime sincere but often counterfeit—and overdoses of false hope.

Worst of all, most have us have probably been scammed at least once by such practioners as chiropractors, herbalists, acupuncturists, reflexologists, not to mention the really wacky stuff like threapeautic touch, Reiki and crystal therapy. Punch any of these into Skepdic and read up on them before shelling out.

Of course, you may not want to know what skeptics have to say about a treatment you’ve been using. Let’s say you’ve been having acupuncture regularly for years. You’re convinced it works. Why are you going to listen to some shmo like Robert Todd Carroll or Simon Singh tell you that you’re just buying extravagant placebos? Well, that’s what the trials tell us. None of your favorite alternative treatments – underline none - have proven to be anything more than placebos after having undergone rigorous testing. When you reflect on the voodoo-like nature of most of them, involving catchy concept-words like “energy”, “mind-body”and “spirit,” this should come as no surprise.

Some, however, will argue that quackery is an acceptable method of healing the sick. Why take away hope? The counter-argument is that lying to patients undermines the trust on which the doctor-patient relationship is based. And it opens the door to charlatans of every stripe. Like Kevin Trudeau. Allowing for “ethical quackery” would erase whatever distinction we make between concepts such as “truth” and “falsehood”, rendering them meaningless. After all, why bother developing and testing real medicine when all we need are sugar pills with fancy names? Why bother getting a medical degree when we could all become faith healers or homeopaths simply by hanging a sign over our door or on our website? Unless we are able to admit that there is a real and worthwhile difference between selling a product known to work and a simple placebo, we might as well send our children to witchdoctors and our elderly parents to the bloodletter.

Here are a few websites to help you out: Quackwatch, Bad Science and, of course, Skepdic. There’s a lot of information out there, but it would be prudent to find out what actual scientists and doctors have to say before paying for a treatment based on some mythical Oriental tradition which probably never even existed.

Eric Kaufmann: Inheriting the Earth

The Friendly Atheist has an interview with Eric Kaufmann, author of the just-released book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. Kaufmann’s book appears to be an attempt to persuade us, using demographic statistics, that secularism and liberal democracy are soon to be a thing of the past. Religious fundamentalists simply have more children than the rest of us, and nobody has fewer children than atheists and secularists. This is bad news because, any way you look at such a future, you lose.

One obvious remedy would be for secularists to play the game of demographic warfare, tripling the number of children they currently are having and indoctrinating them in a fundamentalist-style secularism. But that would make us just like the religious fundamentalists. Indeed, secularists more or less agree on the fact that secularism relies heavily on critical thinking, individual liberty and the rule of law, not dogma and zealous indoctrination. So that is an unlikely solution. Kaufmann has another suggestion.

FA: Should atheists start having more babies?

EK: Tough question. My instinctive answer would be ‘yes’, but this would only be effective if immigration were reduced and religious fundamentalists responded to calls for smaller families, which is unlikely. There is also the matter of global warming to worry about — we don’t want a population footrace with fundamentalism. So in the end, the most promising course is to somehow attract more people away from fundamentalist religion, no easy task.

I’m looking forward to the critical reception of Kaufmann’s book. So far, the only other article I found is this one from the Telegraph, gleefully (almost) herlading the demise of modern secular democracy (“Atheism is doomed,” etc.)

Now Reading: Trick or Treatment?

Fearless, intelligent and remorselessly rational, the authors exemplify the same Enlightenment spirit of criticism that animated The Lancet in its early days. One by one, they go through the most influential alternative therapies (acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and herbal medicines) and subject them to scientific scrutiny. In each case, they ask what is the evidence base for saying that a given therapy “works”? Acupuncture, homeopathy and chiropractic all come out badly. Singh and Ernst build a compelling case that these therapies are at worst positively dangerous – chiropractic neck manipulation can result in injury or death – and at best, are more or less useless. For example, tests done in Germany have shown that “real” acupuncture works no better in easing migraines than sham acupuncture, a random application of wrongly positioned needles, working as a placebo.

A Special Kind of Sin

Italy’s Il Messaggero has published an interview with Monignor Gianfranco Girotti, who makes some amazing claims. The Church is embroiled in sex scandals up to its ears: Holland, Germany, Ireland and even Vatican City itself are on the block. In a discussion of sin, Monsignor Girotti explains that murder and pedophilia – if accompanied by proper and convincing repentance by the offender – are absolvable. Abortion, he rhapsodizes, is a “special kind of sin.” Not only is it homicide, but it’s a profanation of the Eucarist! Which, if you didn’t get the Monsignor’s point, is much worse than raping children, covering it up and then lying about it to the press. Not to mention making lame and implausible excuses for the rapists themselves and shielding them from a proper prosecution.

Now Reading: The Seduction of Unreason

Read the introduction here.

“That postmodernists rely unwittingly on arguments and positions developed by proponents of Counter-Enlightenment does not mean they are conservative, let alone reactionary. The study that follows is not an exercise in guilt-by-association. Nevertheless, such reliance suggests that their standpoint is confused, that the disjunction between their epistemological radicalism and their political preferences (supposedly “progressive,” though often difficult to pinpoint) results in a fundamental incoherence. Nor are postmodernists, as their right-wing detractors maintain, particularly “dangerous.” Despite their antipathy to democracy and their radical political longings, they, too, are the beneficiaries of a modern political culture in which tolerance has been enshrined as a fundamental value.”