MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

A cult can be defined not just in a religious context, but also as a” usually nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease.” After ~20 years of researching this area, I have come to suspect that much of alternative medicine resembles a cult – a bold statement, so I better explain.

One characteristic of a cult is the unquestioning commitment of its members to the bizarre ideas of their iconic leader. This, I think, chimes with several forms alternative medicine. Homeopaths, for instance, very rarely question the implausible doctrines of Hahnemann who, to them, is some sort of a semi-god. Similarly, few chiropractors doubt even the most ridiculous assumptions of their founding father, D D Palmer who, despite of having been a somewhat pathetic figure, is uncritically worshipped. By definition, a cult-leader is idealised and thus not accountable to anyone; he (yes, it is almost invariably a male person) cannot be proven wrong by logic arguments nor by scientific facts. He is quite simply immune to any form of scrutiny. Those who dare to disagree with his dogma are expelled, punished, defamed or all of the above.

Cults tend to brain-wash their members into unconditional submission and belief. Likewise, fanatics of alternative medicine tend to be brain-washed, i.e. systematically misinformed to the extend that reality becomes invisible. They unquestioningly believe in what they have been told, in what they have read in their cult-texts, and in what they have learnt from their cult-peers. The effects of this phenomenon can be dramatic: the powers of discrimination of the cult-member are reduced, critical questions are discouraged, and no amount of evidence can dissuade the cult-member from abandoning even the most indefensible concepts. Internal criticism is thus by definition non-existent.

Like religious cults, many forms of alternative medicine promote an elitist concept. Cult-members become convinced of their superiority, based not on rational considerations but on irrational beliefs. This phenomenon has a range of consequences. It leads to the isolation of the cult-member from the rest of the world. By definition, critics of the cult do not belong to the elite; they are viewed as not being able to comprehend the subtleties of the issues at hand and are thus ignored or not taken seriously. For cult-members, external criticism is thus non-existent or invalid.

Cult-members tend to be on a mission, and so are many enthusiasts of alternative medicine. They use any conceivable means to recruit new converts. For instance, they try to convince family, friends and acquaintances of their belief in their particular alternative therapy at every conceivable occasion. They also try to operate on a political level to popularize their cult. They cherry pick data, often argue emotionally rather than rationally, and ignore all arguments which contradict their belief system.

Cult-members, in their isolation from society, tend to be assume that there is little worthy of their consideration outside the cult. Similarly, enthusiasts of alternative medicine tend to think that their treatment is the only true method of healing. Therapies, concepts and facts which are not cult-approved are systematically defamed. An example is the notion of BIG PHARMA which is employed regularly in alternative medicine. No reasonable person assumes that the pharmaceutical industry smells of roses. However, the exaggerated and systematic denunciation of this industry and its achievements is a characteristic of virtually all branches of alternative medicine. Such behaviour usually tells us more about the accuser than the accused.

There are many other parallels between a  cult and alternative medicine, I am sure. In my view, the most striking one must be the fact that any spark of cognitive dissonance in the cult-victim is being extinguished by highly effective and incessant flow of misinformation which often amounts to a form of brain-washing.

25 Responses to Alternative medicine, is it a cult?

  • Ann Godridge says:

    Agreed. I have thought for some time that the most dangerous aspect of homeopathy is the underlying philosophy There’s a lot of circular reasoning. So for example, a lack of reaction after a homeopathic remedy is interepreted as meaning that the remedy was not the correct one, or the illness is deeper rooted and needs a stronger (in this case more dilute) remedy. A bad reaction or worsening of symptoms after a homeopathic remdy is interpreted as a good sign – they call it a herx reaction, or a healing crisis. There’s really no way out – once you’ve accepted the philosophy. Often people turn to alternatives, as I did at first, when medicine is of little help in dealing with a chronic condition. But once people become ‘true believers’, rationality is thrown out of the window and the fundamentally anti – scientific mentality seems to take root.

    • Edzard says:

      that’s right! if you get worse, it’s a healing crisis; if you get better, it’s the effect of the remedy; if nothing happens at all, a homeopath will say that without his treatment, you would have deteriorated. it’s a fool’s paradise.

      • Guy Chapman says:

        Somebody challenged me to name a single authentic cure by medicine. Needless to say they rejected the ones I suggested because, for example, antibiotics only “suppress the symptoms”. As long as you’re a germ theory denialist, I guess.

        It’s probably time for another overview article bringing the state of knowledge up to date. A lot of homeopaths don’t seem to realise that “like cures like” is not unproven, it is actually refuted, because it is explicitly based on a claim in respect of chinchona which is proven to be entirely wrong – the mechanism of action of chinchona is pretty well understood and it is entirely different from the mechanism proposed by Hahnemann. This is not new knowledge I agree but it is worth stating in a systematic way. So many red herrings have been trailed and refuted that over the last few years they have actually removed some significant areas of residual uncertainty. The change from “it could be that” to “it is that” followed by proof that no, it is not, narrows the remaining field of doubt.

  • I’ve been thinking about this too as I’ve been writing about the cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski, who has a real cult of personality around him. I wonder if you think that coercion (a classic element of a cult) is present in alt med? I think that the cancer patients who end up at Stan’s clinic are at enough of a disadvantage that while they are not coerced, they are offered a deal that they can not reasonably (or irrationally, as the case may be) refuse. Actually, I’ve seen cases of patients who, extended the lifeline, when they can’t pay, be cut off from their “only hope of salvation.” Hm… Good post. Now I’m sad again. :)

  • Matt says:

    I’ve been thinking about this recently as well with regard to homeopathy.

    I first thought there might be a similarity between the homeopathic interview with the client and the Catholic confession. Then I thought the sugar pills, consumed in a slightly ritual manner were a bit like the Eucharist. Then loads of other things started falling into place. Water containing some ephemeral essence when prepared by an initiate sounds a bit like the Holy Ghost or passage of grace. More fundamentally; illness, or dis-ease as they like to call it, is presented as a problem in your life force, a bit like sin, a sin from which the homeopath offers redemption, though ceremonial consumption of a spiritual residue. The original practice of banging the remedy on leather bound bible, a book which has been used for other magical purposes, such as predicting the future by reading a random verse, adds even more weight to this interpretation.

    So arguably homeopathy is more of an eccentric Christianity derived crypto-religion, concealed by outwardly medical practice, than a pseudoscientific medicine. In fact the whole lot is just a medicalised mashup of Christian ceremonial and renaissance alchemical magic with a thin veneer of pseudoscience on top to distract attention.

    • Pete 628 says:

      Matt, I think mysticism is one of the most essential ingredients of both traditional and New Age quackery.

      The more mysterious the better, as in the use of: leather-bound books, water memory, like cures like, posturing, hand-waving gestures (including waving burning incense), coercion, confessions, titles (appeal to authority), anti-science, references to Atlantis, the “magic power” of crystals, chakras, life-force, reincarnation, and of course quantum quackery (my favourite example of delusion that has gone so far out of control that it is way beyond therapeutic help).

      “… with a thin veneer of pseudoscience on top to distract attention.” Yes, conjuring tricks is what they are.

  • Of course, I’ve been saying this for years at TMR, only to be criticized for even using the word “cult”.

    Thanks, Doc:

    You do your profession proud.

    If you need evidence of this, or want to expand on revealing the phenomena, just ask.

  • I’m glad you wrote this. The signs are certainly there: the belief system’s reliance on the miraculous; the ‘shamanism’; the defensive reaction to rational criticism. And, not only do ‘believers’ take personal insult, but, because they are often ‘nice’ people, they are supported by sympathetic others – I call it ‘offence by proxy’: the defensive reaction on behalf of some other person(s) who would take offence to what you say, even though your arguer doesn’t, really. Certainly religion-like. Is it mere coincidence that, as mainstream religion declines, the numbers of CAM converts rise?

    • James says:

      “Couldn’t you argue most of this for conventional medicine?”

      What, where scientific knowledge is used to identify potential ‘remedies’ which are then tested through clinical trials specifically designed to try and prove the ‘remedy’ doesn’t work? Then only when that ‘remedy’ is shown under strictly blinded and regulated standards to still give statistically better healing results than placebos/no treatment is that ‘remedy’ accepted as effective?

      No there’s no fu$*%ng comparison whatsoever.

  • Bartman says:

    Agree completedly with this blog! As an example I have read a mail today:
    “Our experience is that clients should have a therapist where they should feel comfortable with to regarding having a positive treatment effect.”

    *puke*

  • BAL1953 says:

    Just recently a relative tried to convince me that essential oils could cure anything–even my M.S. among anything else I may have had during the past 60 years of my life and might have in the future (sinus infections, indigestion, sleeplessness, headaches, etc., etc.) She gave me a massage with a mixture of about 6 different oils that would make me relaxed, healthy, and cure what ever I had currently. During the night I felt very sick to my stomach and the odor of the oil was so gross had to strip my bed the next morning.

    I mentioned to her how I’d read about a baby who had died because her mother slathered him with lavender oil. She refused to because it because oils are NATURAL!

    I’ve heard the same “it’s safe because it’s natural” so many times. When a different another essential oil selling neighbor used this as a healthy reason to buy her oils I said, “Well, digitalis is ‘natural.’ So is hemlock.” She didn’t like that answer.

    My sister-in-law is a well educated herbalist who gave me this advice, “If someone tells you it’s safe because it’s ‘natural’ turn around and run away as fast as you can.”

    There was an iridologist giving a demonstration and for just the heck of it I had her check my eyes. I didn’t tell her about any of my health conditions. When I asked her about it she said my reproductive organs were healthy. Well…I’d had a total hysterectomy 15 years earlier!

  • Ned Land says:

    I can relate a personal anecdote demonstrating another common trait AltMed shares with cults… BANISHMENT.

    In our family, our father has always been a promoter of alternative medicine. For the many years this was innocuous beliefs in prevention, home remedies and the power of vitamins. Not a big deal.

    Then he discovered The Internet.

    Now he was following sites like Natural News and even crazier places. He accually became a ‘deacon’ in some fake religion with the hope of bringing some bleach-based cure-all into Canada based on religious rights. Nobody in the family would bring up health issues in front of him for fear of getting a lecture against modern medicine.

    Then my little nephew was diagnosed with Type1 diabetes.

    Even though I begged my father to lay off my sister, he began mailing her AltMed printouts from internet sites. Then he started demanding that my nephew be sent to him to be ‘cured’. Obviously this wasn’t going to happen. This resulted in several family members (including myself) getting passive-aggressive ‘letters of forgiveness’ that stated no further contact was wanted.

    We were BANISHED. We were declared outsiders and The AltMed Cult would tolerate no dissension.

      • Ned Land says:

        Completely. But not only that;

        - he cured his own prostrate cancer. Something to do with making his blood more acidic.
        - was a believer in curing things with silver (Colloidal silver?)
        - he was always a believer in the power of quartz crystals
        - took a vacation in Thailand and wrote it off as a ‘medical expense’ by getting some quack procedure done.
        - when sent links to QuackWatch, dismissed them as propaganda from a “medical industry shill” but never presented evidence of this fact.
        - fought to let farmers sell unpasteurized milk. Pasteurization was part of an Ontario Dairy Board conspiracy.

  • Guy Chapman says:

    The phrase “sectarian medicine” has been used, with some justification. The biggest difference between medical science and SCAM is that medical science does not care about the origins of a treatment, the only question is whether it can be shown to work. SCAM has a double standard. Evidence supportive of SCAM or critical of medicine is accepted at face value, regardless of quality; evidence supportive of medicine or critical of SCAM is rejected, and only after rejection is it mined for things that can be used to undermine its conclusions.

  • ChilliYoghurt says:

    When concept(s) cannot be proved by empirical evidence people who continue to believe them do so purely on faith. It naturally extends that people that have the necessary faith to believe something in the absence of evidence are going to act in a superior way to those that do not. Moreover, they are also going to try and convince others that they are missing out on whatever it is they happen to believe.

    Given that cults and alternative therapies both require faith it was always going to be a straightforward task to show them to be, to a greater or lesser extent, synonymous; the same is true for witchcraft, believing in ghosts, tarot cards, tealeaf reading, ouija boards, all of the established religions etc. etc.

    I do question how has this understanding helped – has it moved the debate forward? Does it teach us anything about addressing either religious fanatics or the dangers of seeking treatment for cancer from crystal healers? For me the answer is no and no.

    I would go on to ask, could making the comparison actually be unhelpful? I am positive, that an alternative practitioner could manipulate the comparison of their treatment to that of a cult as a lack of understanding in their treatment. Clearly, it proves nothing about the efficacy of the treatment but does add another misleading layer to the debate.

    To conclude, I know that, if I was in the debating chamber with an alternative practitioner and some genuinely undecided individuals, I would not wish to get sidetracked by this dead-end comparison as it moves the debate away from the real question – if you cannot show empirical evidence of success then is doesn’t work.

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