In a previous post, I asked this important question: how can research into alternative medicine ever save a single life?

The answer I suggested was as follows:

Since about 20 years, I am regularly pointing out that the most important research questions in my field relate to the risks of alternative medicine. I have continually published articles about these issues in the medical literature and, more recently, I have also made a conscious effort to step out of the ivory towers of academia and started writing for a much wider lay-audience (hence also this blog). Important landmarks on this journey include:

– pointing out that some forms of alternative medicine can cause serious complications, including deaths,

– disclosing that alternative diagnostic methods are unreliable and can cause serious problems,

– demonstrating that much of the advice given by alternative practitioners can cause serious harm to the patients who follow it,

– that the advice provided in books or on the Internet can be equally dangerous,

– and that even the most innocent yet ineffective therapy becomes life-threatening, once it is used to replace effective treatments for serious conditions.

Alternative medicine is cleverly, heavily and incessantly promoted as being natural and hence harmless. Several of my previous posts and the ensuing discussions on this blog strongly suggest that some chiropractors deny that their neck manipulations can cause a stroke. Similarly, some homeopaths are convinced that they can do no harm; some acupuncturists insist that their needles are entirely safe; some herbalists think that their medicines are risk-free, etc. All of them tend to agree that the risks are non-existent or so small that they are dwarfed by those of conventional medicine, thus ignoring that the potential risks of any treatment must be seen in relation to their proven benefit.

For 20 years, I have tried my best to dispel these dangerous myths and fallacies. In doing so, I had to fight many tough battles  (sometimes even with the people who should have protected me, e.g. my peers at Exeter university), and I have the scars to prove it. If, however, I did save just one life by conducting my research into the risks of alternative medicine and by writing about it, the effort was well worth it.


Just now, I received an email from someone who clearly and vehemently disagrees with any of the above. As this blog is a forum where all sorts of opinions can and should be voiced, I thought I share this communication with you. Here it is:

Having been out of chiropractic practice for a while, I was thrilled to hear that you have been forced into early retirement on today’s Radio 4 programme. You have caused so many good people anguish and pain and your tunnel-visioned arrogance is staggering and detrimental to humanity. You REALLY think modern science has all the answers? Wow.

The question I ask myself is who is correct, the (ex-)chiropractor or I?


  1. Have I caused anguish and pain to many?
  2. Do I suffer from tunnel-vision?
  3. Am I arrogant?
  4. Is my work detrimental to humanity?
  5. Do I believe that modern science has all the answers?

Here is what I think about these specific questions:

  1. I have probably caused anguish (but no pain, as far as I am aware). This sadly is unavoidable if one seeks the truth in an area as alternative medicine.
  2. I am not the best person to judge this.
  3. Possibly; again I cannot judge.
  4. I truly don’t see this at all.
  5. No, not for one second.

In case you wonder what programme the author of the above email had been listening to, you can find it here.

Is there a bottom line? I am not sure. Perhaps this: whenever strong believes clash with scientific facts, some people are going to be unhappy. If we want to make progress, this seems to be almost unavoidable; all we can try to do is to minimize the anguish by being humble and by showing human decency.

10 Responses to Alternative medicine: where strong beliefs and scientific facts clash

  • One addition I’d make to your brief list of heavily-promoted lies is the idea that homeopathy etc are beliefs which are bravely defended by impecunious, courageous souls in the face of Big Pharma’s onslaught. Whereas, as we know, there’s huge amounts of money being made selling quackery.
    And of course there’s the tendency of altmeds to behave like mardy children if they’re so much as gently criticised, or engaged in serious and polite discussion, bursting into tears quite often and complaining of ‘aggression’ and ‘bad manners’.

    • there’s huge amounts of money being made selling quackery”

      A delicious all-you-can-eat buffet for ravening narcissists too.

  • I sympathise with your email correspondent exactly as much as I sympathise with members of the burgling trade who are inexplicably resisted in their activities.

  • I would quote Dara O’Briain: Of course science doesn’t know everything. Science *knows* it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.

    • The fact that modern science does not know everything does not mean that we should trust modern pseudoscience. Pseudoscience has yet to be shown trustworthy about anything. Science is the best way we have of not fooling ourselves. Pseudoscience of alt-med has been shown consistently to be just the opposite. The whole point is self deception and the deception of others.

    • Guy Chapman- A wonderful routine he does -available on Youtube- and one which I’ve recommended to people several times. Maybe even here. Another excellent piece in the same routine is where he talks about the false juxtaposition of ideas in the media, in the spurious cause of ‘balance’.

  • “how can research into alternative medicine ever save a single life?”

    Uh, by doing research?

    • Pharmacognosy is a mainstream reality-based discipline which has nothing to do with SCAM other than that SCAM vendors abuse its findings in order to claim validation of the entirety of natural woo.

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