MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Arnold Relman has died aged 91. He was a great personality, served for many years as editor-in-chief of ‘The New England Journal of Medicine’ and was professor of medicine and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. He also was an brilliantly outspoken critic of alternative medicine, and I therefore believe that he deserves to be remembered here. The following excerpts are from an article he wrote in 1998 about Andrew Weil, America’s foremost guru of alternative medicine; I have taken the liberty of extracting a few paragraphs which deal with alternative medicine in general terms.

Until now, alternative medicine has generally been rejected by medical scientists and educators, and by most practicing physicians. The reasons are many, but the most important reason is the difference in mentality between the alternative practitioners and the medical establishment. The leaders of the establishment believe in the scientific method, and in the rule of evidence, and in the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology upon which the modern view of nature is based. Alternative practitioners either do not seem to care about science or explicitly reject its premises. Their methods are often based on notions totally at odds with science, common sense, and modern conceptions of the structure and the function of the human body. In advancing their claims, they do not appear to recognize the need for objective evidence, asserting that the intuitions and the personal beliefs of patients and healers are all that is needed to validate their methods. One might have expected such thinking to alienate most people in a technologically advanced society such as ours; but the alternative medicine movement, and the popularity of gurus such as Weil, are growing rapidly…

That people usually “get better,” that most relatively minor diseases heal spontaneously or seem to improve with simple common remedies, is hardly news. Every physician, indeed every grandmother, knows that. Yet before we accept Weil’s contention that serious illnesses such as “bone cancer,” “Parkinson’s disease,” or “scleroderma” are similarly curable, or respond to alternative healing methods, we need at least to have some convincing medical evidence that the patients whom he reports in these testimonials did indeed suffer from these diseases, and that they were really improved or healed. The perplexity is not that Weil is using “anecdotes” as proof, but that we don’t know whether the anecdotes are true.

Anecdotal evidence is often used in the conventional medical literature to suggest the effectiveness of treatment that has not yet been tested by formal clinical trials. In fact, much of the mainstream professional literature in medicine consists of case reports — “anecdotes,” of a kind. The crucial difference between those case reports and the testimonials that abound in Weil’s books (and throughout the literature of alternative medicine) is that the case reports in the mainstream literature are almost always meticulously documented with objective data to establish the diagnosis and to verify what happened, whereas the testimonials cited by alternative medicine practitioners usually are not. Weil almost never gives any objective data to support his claims. Almost everything is simply hearsay and personal opinion.

To the best of my knowledge, Weil himself has published nothing in the peer-reviewed medical literature to document objectively his personal experiences with allegedly cured patients or to verify his claims for the effectiveness of any of the unorthodox remedies he uses. He is not alone in this respect. Few proponents of alternative medicine have so far published clinical reports that would stand the rigorous scientific scrutiny given to studies of traditional medical treatments published in the serious medical journals. Alternative medicine is still a field rich in undocumented claims and anecdotes and relatively lacking in credible scientific reports…

… Thus Weil can believe in miraculous cures even while claiming to be rational and scientific, because he thinks that quantum theory supports his views.

Yet the leading physicists of our time do not accept such an interpretation of quantum theory. They do not believe quantum theory says anything about the role of human consciousness in the physical world. They see quantum laws as simply a useful mathematical formulation for describing subatomic phenomena that are not adequately handled by classical physical theory, although the latter remains quite satisfactory for the analysis of physical events at the macro-level. Steven Weinberg has observed that “quantum mechanics has been overwhelmingly important to physics, but I cannot find any messages for human life in quantum mechanics that are different in any important way from those of Newtonian physics.” And overriding all discussions of the meaning of quantum physics is the fundamental fact that quantum theory, like all other scientific law, is only valid to the extent that it predicts and accords with the evidence provided by observation and objective measurement. Richard Feynman said it quite simply: “Observation is the ultimate and final judge of the truth of an idea.” Feynman also pointed out that scientific observations need to be objective, reproducible, and, in a sense, public — that is, available to all interested scientists who wish to check the observations for themselves.

Surely almost all scientists would agree with Feynman that, regardless of what theory of nature we wish to espouse, we cannot escape the obligation to support our claims with objective evidence. All theories must conform to the facts or be discarded. So, if Weil cannot produce credible evidence to validate the miraculous cures that he claims for the healing powers of the mind, and if he does not support with objective data the claims he and others make for the effectiveness of alternative healing methods, he cannot presume to wear the mantle of science, and his appeal to quantum theory cannot help him.

Some apologists for alternative medicine have argued that since their healing methods are based on a “paradigm” different from that of traditional medicine, traditional standards of evidence do not apply. Weil sometimes seems to agree with that view, as when he talks about “stoned thinking” and the “ambivalent” nature of reality, but more recently — as he seeks to integrate alternative with allopathic medicine — he seems to acknowledge the need for objective evidence. This, at least, is how I would interpret one of his most recent and ambitious publishing ventures, the editorship of the new quarterly journal Integrative Medicine***.

Integrative Medicine describes itself as a “peer-reviewed journal … committed to gathering evidence for the safety and efficacy of all approaches to health according to the highest standards of scientific research, while remaining open to new paradigms and honoring the healing power of nature.” The Associate Editors and Editorial Board include prominent names in both alternative medicine and allopathic medicine, who presumably support that mission. Yet the first two issues will disappoint those who were looking for original clinical research based on new, objective data. Perhaps subsequent issues will be different, but in any case it is hard to understand the need for Weil’s new journal if he truly intends to hold manuscripts to accepted scientific standards: there already exist many leading peer-reviewed medical journals that will review research studies of alternative healing methods on their merits. During the past decade or so, only a few such studies have passed rigorous review and have been published in first-rate journals. Recently, more studies have been published, but very few of them report significant clinical effects. And that is pretty much where matters now stand. Despite much avowed interest in research on alternative medicine and increased investment in support of such research, the evidentiary underpinnings of unconventional healing methods are still largely lacking…

The alternative medicine movement has been around for a long time, but it was eclipsed during most of this century by the success of medical science. Now there is growing public disenchantment with the cost and the impersonality of modern medical care, as well as concern about medical mistakes and the complications and side-effects of pharmaceuticals and other forms of medical treatment. For their part, physicians have allowed the public to perceive them as uninterested in personal problems, as inaccessible to their patients except when carrying out technical procedures and surgical operations. The “doctor knows best” attitude, which dominated patient-doctor relations during most of the century, has in recent decades given way to a more activist, consumer-oriented view of the patient’s role. Moreover, many other licensed health-care professionals, such as nurse-practitioners, psychotherapists, pharmacists, and chiropractors, are providing services once exclusively reserved to allopathic physicians.

The net result of all these developments has been a weakening of the hegemony that allopathic medicine once exercised over the health care system, and a growing interest by the public in exploring other healing approaches. The authority of allopathic medicine is also being challenged by a swelling current of mysticism and anti-scientism that runs deep through our culture. Even as the number and the complexity of urgent technological and scientific issues facing contemporary society increase, there seems to be a growing public distrust of the scientific outlook and a reawakening of interest in mysticism and spiritualism.

All this obscurantism has given powerful impetus to the alternative medicine movement, with its emphasis on the power of mind over matter. And so consumer demand for alternative remedies is rising, as is public and private financial support for their study and clinical use. It is no wonder that practicing physicians, the academic medical establishment, and the National Institutes of Health are all finding reasons to pay more attention to the alternative medicine movement. Indeed, it is becoming politically incorrect for the movement’s critics to express their skepticism too strongly in public…

There is no doubt that modern medicine as it is now practiced needs to improve its relations with patients, and that some of the criticisms leveled against it by people such as Weil — and by many more within the medical establishment itself — are valid. There also can be no doubt that a few of the “natural” medicines and healing methods now being used by practitioners of alternative medicine will prove, after testing, to be safe and effective. This, after all, has been the way in which many important therapeutic agents and treatments have found their way into standard medical practice in the past. Mainstream medicine should continue to be open to the testing of selected unconventional treatments. In keeping an open mind, however, the medical establishment in this country must not lose its scientific compass or weaken its commitment to rational thought and the rule of evidence.

There are not two kinds of medicine, one conventional and the other unconventional, that can be practiced jointly in a new kind of “integrative medicine.” Nor, as Andrew Weil and his friends also would have us believe, are there two kinds of thinking, or two ways to find out which treatments work and which do not. In the best kind of medical practice, all proposed treatments must be tested objectively. In the end, there will only be treatments that pass that test and those that do not, those that are proven worthwhile and those that are not. Can there be any reasonable “alternative”?

 

*** the journal only existed for a short period of time

4 Responses to A tribute to Arnold S Relman

  • Splendid! What better way to honour the good professor than to continue bringing his words before an audience. These things, however, often re-iterate the truth to me of Bernard Shaw’s quip, “two nations separated by a common language”: The word “allopath” was invented by Samuel Hahnemann in order to describe evidence based medicine. It is still used (usually with a noticeable subtext) today by Homeopath apologists who seek to insinuate a meaningless word into our language in the same way that they seek to insinuate a meaningless “medicine” into our hospitals. The word is becoming very much assimilated into American English now, but I am relieved to see that this is not the case in the United Kingdom: Use of the word is a very useful red flag for quacks and charlatans and I sincerely hope that everyone else will steadfastly leave these people exclusive use of their word as well as their expensive water.

  • Edzard – thanks for posting, this paragraph explains a lot:

    “Yet the leading physicists of our time do not accept such an interpretation of quantum theory. They do not believe quantum theory says anything about the role of human consciousness in the physical world. They see quantum laws as simply a useful mathematical formulation for describing subatomic phenomena that are not adequately handled by classical physical theory, although the latter remains quite satisfactory for the analysis of physical events at the macro-level. Steven Weinberg has observed that “quantum mechanics has been overwhelmingly important to physics, but I cannot find any messages for human life in quantum mechanics that are different in any important way from those of Newtonian physics.” And overriding all discussions of the meaning of quantum physics is the fundamental fact that quantum theory, like all other scientific law, is only valid to the extent that it predicts and accords with the evidence provided by observation and objective measurement.”

    It was written in 1998 – would you say this is still an accurate statement?

  • It’s still an accurate statement. Quantum theory cannot predict anything in the field of biology. The fact is that quantum system needs to be isolated from the most of the interaction to be properly studied. Biology and medicine are science of interaction. Now there is quantum field theory that study quantum particles interactions in more complexe system but still at quantum scale : decoherence law prevent any quantic effet at macro scale. Sorry for the poor english, not my native language.

    • Hi Quark,

      No apologies needed, the English is perfectly fine. And, thanks for the reply – I miss having a physicist for a neighbor!

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