MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

It has been shown repeatedly that a ‘conspiracy mentality’ is associated with usage of alternative medicine. But perhaps alternative medicine is itself a conspiracy theory in disguise?

One of the questions I invariably get after a public lecture is the one about alternative medicine being the victim of some sort of sinister plot. This notion can take various shapes and forms:

  • The scientific establishment prevents the public from fully benefitting from the effects of alternative medicine.
  • The pharmaceutical industry suppresses the good news about alternative treatments.
  • The funding agencies refuse to fund research into alternative medicine.
  • The media are bent on defaming alternative medicine.
  • The regulators do not allow alternative medicine to thrive as much as it would deserve.
  • The medical profession is afraid that the benefits of alternative medicine become better known.

I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture.

The amazing thing is that I hear such arguments not just from fanatic proponents of alternative medicine, but also from more reasonable people. These sentiments seem to be entirely common and seemingly logical arguments. Most people I meet seem to believe them at least to some degree.

Having heard them so often, I do wonder: Can one explain alternative medicine as a conspiracy theory?

A conspiracy theory is an erroneous and often difficult to falsify notion that tries to explain a set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators, while ignoring obvious alternative explanations. The very concept of alternative medicine assumes that there are valuable therapies that conventional healthcare does not allow in its realm.

The reasons for the secret plot that prevents them to be included in conventional healthcare are rarely named by enthusiasts of alternative medicine. So, what are they?

  • Professional jealousy?
  • Financial interests?
  • Lack of interest?
  • Lack of caring?

According to proponents of alternative medicine who I have asked, they consist of a mixture of all of these possibilities. And all of these possibilities are, in a way, consistent with alternative medicine being based on a conspiracy theory.

When I ask people why they believe in these theories, they cannot produce any solid evidence for their beliefs. This does not surprise me because, as far as I can see, there is no evidence to support them: they are erroneous. In turn, this means that one important criterium for conspiracy theory is being met.

Another characteristic of conspiracy theories is that they cannot easily been proven to be false. None of the above-listed reasons are, in fact, difficult to falsify.

A final characteristic of conspiracy theories is that its proponents are ignoring obvious alternative explanations.

WHY ARE ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES NOT ADMITTED INTO THE REALM OF CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE?

Simply because they are not supported by sufficiently strong evidence for generating more good than harm.

So, yes, to some extent alternative medicine even is a conspiracy theory in disguise.

18 Responses to Is alternative medicine a conspiracy theory in disguise?

  • The entire alternative medicine industry is not a conspiracy theory of itself. That would be a silly idea. Although it seems plausible that many SCAM merchants know full well their products don’t work an yet conspire with others – who know the same – to pretend to the vulnerable that they do work in order to make money. I don’t think that in the age of enlightenment they deserve the benefit of the doubt. For this reason, I am loath to accept (without verifiable evidence) that SCAM merchants are “good people” who are “well meaning”. More research is needed into this specific issue.

    With regard to the difference between a conspiracy theory and a state of denial, I find this comparison of quotes very useful: link

  • “Can one explain alternative medicine as a conspiracy theory?”

    In my humble (and respectful) opinion, no.

    CAM comprises a bundle of beliefs and faith in fantasies, some of which were once at the heart of healthcare but which have got left behind and become anachronistic under the relentless pressure of honesty, integrity and demands for scientifically derived plausible reproducible evidence.
    Some have been more recently invented to promote the associated falsehoods.

    That having been said, I am sure that some proponents of SCAM and camistry of all colours do intend to mislead the vulnerable and gullible (of all colours) and do conspire with like-minded associates to do so. They create journals, associations, political campaigns, colleges and conferences with that intention. And disguise their intentions by making false claims and marketing shrewdly.

    Many ‘practitioners’ who behave thus are involved in conspiracies to have their modalities and beliefs ‘integrated’ with scientific based modern medicine – but the domain of ‘alternative medicine’ is too heterogeneous to be labelled a conspiracy as such.

    Many of these camists and scam artists know the alternative explanations well, and devise progressively bizarre though rational sounding explanations to have rational explanations set aside. E.g. – the current trend for the quotidian quotations of ‘quanta’, ‘quantum entanglements’ etc.

    If the conspirators were serious about advancing ‘health and wellbeing’ they would not be involved in SCAM.
    The activities of many camists can be explained on the basis of them being involved in conspiracies to defraud – but I am prepared to accept some have simply been drawn into a domain they do not understand.

    • Many of your readers may not be aware of the permanent injunction order placed against the American Medical Association because of its historical attempt to contain and eliminate the profession of Chiropractic.
      Please read this court order published in 1988.
      https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/370078
      The appeal by the AMA was denied.
      https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/370080

      • So?
        “the AMA had violated the antitrust laws…”
        what does that show?

        • It shows that there was a sinister plot by the AMA to “contain and eliminate chiropractic as a profession. In 1963 the AMA’s Committee on Quackery was formed. The committee worked aggressively- both overtly and covertly- to eliminate chiropractic.”
          What is in quotes are some of the words from the US District Court judge Special Communication ordered to be published in JAMA.
          Contrary to what you have blogged, this is the solid evidence proving a conspiracy existed against chiropractic “alternative medicine” by political medicine.
          All appeals by the AMA were denied.

      • @ Dr Michael Epstein

        Here’s some clarification about that injunction:

        QUOTE

        “…federal court judge Susan Getzendanner concluded that during the 1960s “there was a lot of material available to the AMA Committee on Quackery that supported its belief that all chiropractic was unscientific and deleterious.” The judge also noted that chiropractors still took too many x-rays. However, she ruled that the AMA had engaged in an illegal boycott. She concluded that the dominant reason for the AMA’s antichiropractic campaign was the belief that chiropractic was not in the best interest of patients. But she ruled that this did not justify attempting to contain and eliminate an entire licensed profession without first demonstrating that a less restrictive campaign could not succeed in protecting the public. Although chiropractors trumpet the antitrust ruling as an endorsement of their effectiveness, the case was decided on narrow legal grounds (restraint of trade) and was not an evaluation of chiropractic methods.”

        Ref. https://www.chirobase.org/08Legal/AT/at00.html

        • Incorrect! If you actually read the Special Communication published on January 1, 1988, issue of JAMA, you will find this factual statement. On page 82, paragraph two “AMA witnesses, including the present Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the AMA, testified that some forms of treatment by chiropractors, including manipulation, can be therapeutic in the treatment of conditions such as back pain syndrome.” I need to remind you that back and neck pain is the leading cause of years with a disability in the world. A fact published in The Lancet.

          • Dr Michael Epstein wrote “If you actually read the Special Communication published on January 1, 1988, issue of JAMA, you will find this factual statement. On page 82, paragraph two “AMA witnesses, including the present Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the AMA, testified that some forms of treatment by chiropractors, including manipulation, can be therapeutic in the treatment of conditions such as back pain syndrome.” I need to remind you that back and neck pain is the leading cause of years with a disability in the world. A fact published in The Lancet.”

            @ Dr Michael Epstein

            Remembering that that was in 1988, and that since then the evidence for spinal manipulation has been showing it to be a placebo for back pain…
            http://www.ebm-first.com/chiropractic/research-and-efficacy/2163-spinal-manipulative-therapy-for-acute-low-back-pain-update-of-the-earlier-cochrane-review-first-published-in-january-2004.html

            and that spinal manipulation cannot be recommended for neck pain or any other condition
            https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16574972

            …how are the public, these days, being protected from chiropractic manipulation? It is a significant public health concern not least because the majority of chiropractors are STILL entrenched in chiropractic quackery.

            With regard to the first Wilk trial, it’s interesting what George Magner, author of ‘Chiropractic – The Victim’s Perspective’, has to say about it on pp137-138 of his book:

            QUOTE

            “The plaintiffs believed that since chiropractors were licensed, an organized attempt to destroy their profession would violate antitrust laws. The defendants believed that their anti-chiropractic activities were justifiable because they were intended to protect the public.

            The First Trial

            The Wilk case came to trial in 1980. After hearing eight weeks of testimony, the jury concluded that the defendants were innocent. Two years later, however, an appeals court overturned this verdict and ordered a new trial on grounds that the original judge had misinterpreted the law. The appeals court ruled, in effect, that why the defendants campaigned against chiropractic was less important than whether their actions suppressed competition. The appeals court judges felt that “evidence tending to show that chiropractic is in fact quackery” might bear on the defendants’ motives, but the “extravagant amount” introduced during the trial might have unfairly prejudiced the jury.
            What evidence? Documents available from the record of the Wilk trial make it crystal clear why the AMA and its allies believed that something was drastically wrong with the chiropractic profession. For example: One document listed forty-eight reasons why chiropractors would obtain spinographs (14” x 36” full-spine films used to detect “subluxations”). The list had been published in a 1957 textbook by a “professor and lecturer of spinography and x-ray practice” at Palmer college of Chiropractic. The reasons included:

            2. It promoted confidence
            4. It creates interest among patients
            6. It reveals facts, chiropractically
            7. It produces business
            10. It attracts a better class of patient
            11. It builds prestige for you in the community
            30. It means the difference between chiropractic success and failure
            31. It helps to eliminate the so-called “starvation period” that many practitioners go through
            32. It provides a quicker way to build a chiropractic practice
            35. Its income makes it possible to arrange a better service

            [END OF QUOTE]

            With regard to the second Wilk trial, the one overseen by Judge Getzendanner (with no jury), it’s interesting to note that chiropractors relinquished their claims for financial damages during it. (Magner, p.140)

          • So let’s see, Chiroquackery became a “profession” for back-pain….but ONLY by default, since it never cured a real ailment in 123 years some of you frauds (instead of becoming legitimate doctors) have been willing to cloister yourselves into a back-pain closet. However thousands of your fellows DO NOT believe the vainglorious “big idea” should be relegated away from the treatment of ALL (or most) human ills. Chiropractic & PTs’ effects on “back” pain are modest at best and ultimately unimportant….rendering no absolute value (except to a DC PT income).
            The “profession” was able to create it’s subterranean living place only due to the fact “back” Pain has not been substantially cured by real science based medicine….it remains likely permanent structural anomalies, lifestyle and psychologically driven. A PERFECT place for pseudoscience exploitation. And like all other human ills back pain is offered no benefit except pointless and expensive placebo effects or minor symptom-switching by a DC treatment. The profession is DRIVEN by conspiracy “us vs. them”….pure protectionism……do you not read the other quacks blogs?

  • Mmmm.. I do wonder how many of the ‘alternative medicine’ crowd really think their stuff works at all. (We could leave out Herbal Medicine as some of its stuff does actually work) I suppose a check for this would be what practitioners do when they or their family get ill. Do they use alternative medicine or jump straight to a real doctor for real medicine or surgical treatment?

    Also, I object to the term ‘alternative medicine’. Until someone shows a treatment works, it is not an alternative to anything. We need a better term so I wonder about ‘Unproven Treatment’. Maybe someone else could come up with something better. I think we need to get away from using the work ‘medicine’ altogether as it, of itself, suggests something that might work.

    • how many of the ‘alternative medicine’ crowd really think their stuff works at all.
      My personal experience is that this does not matter much. I have witnessed what I can describe as a mindset to reject mainstream medicine, mainstream media, education, and science because they do not support the beliefs and evidence provided by the SCAM industry (and its fans). A trope I’ve started to read/hear more frequently as of late is that “science is just like a religion”.

      Add to this a tendency for obsessive-compulsive behaviour and health-anxiety, and in the case I witnessed there is a whole raft of supplements which need to be consumed every day, with varying doses depending on the predominant symptoms and the articles/books read that week.

      Are the ailments going away by virtue of the treatments, the supplements and the spiritual practices? Clearly not, otherwise the treatment would cease. I fear that SCAM is for life.

  • I’d say you hit the proverbial conspiratorial-nail on the head here.
    Each individual scamster may not be a conspiracy freak themselves but the perpetuation of the scam in my view is always and in everyway driven by conspiracy-underpinnings and iconoclastic tendencies. Every religion, when it’s ruse is exposed can only fall back on the “us-against-them” bullshit….which is in essence conspiracy theory.

  • No, I don’t think that conspiracy thinking is a driving force behind (S)CAM, at least as far as practitioners go.
    However, I do think that both originate from a common source, something that I’ll call ‘sloppy thinking’, for want of a better description. Some characteristics of sloppy thinking:
    – drawing conclusions on the basis of insufficient facts, often using narrative (i.e. making stuff up) to fill in the holes,
    – (related) drawing conclusions on the basis of emotions and trivialities,
    – letting personal observations and opinions (and those of peers) prevail over facts and scientific evidence,
    – cherry-picking and/or simply ignoring facts that are contrary to one’s existing beliefs,
    – tendency to trust personal narratives (anecdotes, rumours) more than ‘official’ sources of information
    – and of course a hefty dose of Dunning-Kruger, leading to unwarranted self-confidence and gross overestimate of one’s own knowledge and skills.

    In other words: I think that most CAM practitioners are relatively honest, in that they genuinely believe in what they’re doing. Dealing with the cognitive dissonance stemming from the fact that the majority of scientists (and laypeople) disagree with their beliefs and ‘knowledge’ is relatively simple: ignore it. Just bask in the adoration of believing customers and the respect of peers, and shrug off any inconvenient questions or information that one may come across.
    Yes, distrust of real doctors, scientists and official institutions is rather prevalent among (S)CAM people, but I don’t think that this distrust is causative in any significant way; I think it’s simply another way to deal with the aforementioned cognitive dissonance: “They tell me that what I’m doing is wrong – but I know and see that what I’m doing is right, so they must have special reasons to say those nasty things about me and my profession [fill in Big Pharma bribery etcetera].”
    And yes, these sentiments may develop into a full-blown conspiracy theory, especially with CAM practitioners who are repeatedly attacked, but still this doesn’t appear to happen very often, and predominantly with the more notorious (S)CAM’ers. Or perhaps more accurately: only few CAM practitioners openly exhibit signs of conspiracy beliefs. They simply fool themselves as well as their customers, and I don’t think that distrust in any form plays a major role in this mindset, unless provoked by attacks from ‘outside’.

    All this is of course different for the real SCAM’ers, i.e. CAM practitioners who know very well that they are defrauding and fooling their customers – but with these people, conspiracy sentiments play an even less prominent role.

    (Please note that these are my personal musings and speculations, not based on any thorough research, so I’d be more than happy if someone else can contribute more pertinent information and/or corrections.)

  • LOL, I’ve heard it all now. A conspiracy theory? PMSL. You really are desperate.

  • Many of your readers may not be aware of the permanent injunction order placed against the American Medical Association because of its historical attempt to contain and eliminate the profession of Chiropractic.
    Please read this court order published in 1988.
    https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/370078
    The appeal by the AMA was denied.
    https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/370080

  • Edzard

    “A conspiracy theory is an erroneous and often difficult to falsify notion that tries to explain a set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators, while ignoring obvious alternative explanations. The very concept of alternative medicine assumes that there are valuable therapies that conventional healthcare does not allow in its realm.”

    This is one statement where I kind of agree with you. Conspiracy is a wrong word to use. Broadly defined, these are 2 different business models. One business model works on the principle of providing immediate short term relief from symptoms (3/5 years) or daily management of symptoms. These activities are backed by many scientific outcomes. Failures are considered part of scientific learning and improvement. This model works on statistical averages and therefore on the ability to scale up volumes. Using its ability to generate large profits, it insists and gets active association from other industries: insurance, publication, education, banks, advertising etc.
    Because of its present revenue generating advantage, if the industry tries to push or create obstacles for competing industries, it is but natural business activity. Naming it conspiracy, therefore, is not apt.

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