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

Alternative medicine is an odd term (but it is probably as good or bad as any other term for it). It describes a wide range of treatments (and diagnostic techniques which I exclude from this discussion) that have hardly anything in common.

Hardly anything!

And that means there are a few common denominators. Here are 7 of them:

  1. The treatments have a long history and have thus stood the ‘test of time’.
  2. The treatments enjoy a lot of support.
  3. The treatments are natural and therefore safe.
  4. The treatments are holistic.
  5. The treatments tackle the root causes of the problem.
  6. The treatments are being suppressed by the establishment.
  7. The treatments are inexpensive and therefore value for money.

One only has to scratch the surface to discover that these common denominators of alternative medicine turn out to be unmitigated nonsense.

Let me explain:

The treatments have a long history and have thus stood the ‘test of time’.

It is true that most alternative therapies have a long history; but what does that really mean? In my view, it signals but one thing: when these therapies were invented, people had no idea how our body functions; they mostly had speculations, superstitions and myths. It follows, I think, that the treatments in question are built on speculations, superstitions and myths.

This might be a bit too harsh, I admit. But one thing is absolutely sure: a long history of usage is no proof of efficacy.

The treatments enjoy a lot of support.

Again, this is true. Alternative treatments are supported by many patients who swear by them, by thousands of clinicians who employ them as well as by royalty and other celebrities who make the headlines with them.

Such support is usually based on experience or belief. Neither are evidence; quite the opposite, remember: the three most dangerous words in medicine are ‘IN MY EXPERIENCE’. To be clear, experience and belief can fool us profoundly, and science is a tool to prevent us being misled by them.

The treatments are natural and therefore safe.

Here we have two fallacies moulded into one. Firstly, not all alternative therapies are natural; secondly, none is entirely safe.

There is nothing natural about diluting the Berlin Wall and selling it as a homeopathic remedy. There is nothing natural about forcing a spinal joint beyond its physiological range of motion and calling it spinal manipulation. There is nothing natural about sticking needles into the skin and claiming this re-balances our vital energies.

Acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, etc. are burdened with their fair share of adverse effects. But the real danger of alternative medicine is the harm done by neglecting effective therapies. Anyone who decides to forfeit conventional treatments for a serious condition, and uses alternative therapies instead, runs the risk of shortening their lives.

The treatments are holistic.

Alternative therapists try very hard to sell their treatments as holistic. This sounds good and must be an excellent marketing gimmick. Alas, it is not true.

There is nothing less holistic than seeing subluxations, yin/yang imbalances, auto-intoxications, energy blockages, etc. as the cause of all illness. Holism is at the heart of all good healthcare; the attempt by alternative practitioners to hijack it is merely a transparent attempt to boost their business.

The treatments tackle the root causes of the problem.

Alternative therapists claim that they can identify the root causes of all conditions and thus treat them more effectively than conventional clinicians who merely treat their symptoms. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conventional medicine has been so spectacularly successful not least because we always aim at identifying the cause that underlie a symptom and, whenever possible, treat that cause (often in addition to treating symptoms). Alternative practitioners may well delude themselves that energy imbalances, subluxations, chi-blockages etc. are root causes, but there simply is no evidence to support their deluded claims.

The treatments are being suppressed by the establishment.

The feeling of paranoia seems endemic in alternative medicine. Many practitioners are so affected by it that they believe everyone who doubts their implausible notions and misconceptions is out to get them. Big Pharma’ or whoever else they feel prosecuted by are more likely to smile at such wild conspiracy theories than to fear for their profit margins. And whenever ‘Big Pharma’ does smell a fast buck, they do not hesitate to jump on the alternative band-waggon joining them in ripping off the public by flogging dubious supplements, homeopathics, essential oils, vitamins, flower remedies, detox-remedies, etc.

The treatments are inexpensive and therefore value for money.

It is probably true that the average cost of a homeopathic remedy, an acupuncture treatment or an aromatherapy session costs less than the average conventional treatment. However, to conclude from it that alternative therapies are value for money is wrong. To be of real value, a treatment needs to generate more good than harm; but very few alternative treatments fulfil this criterion. To use a blunt analogy, if someone offers you a used car, it may well be inexpensive – if, however, it does not run and is beyond repair, it cannot be value for money.

As I already stated: alternative medicine is so diverse that its various branches are almost entirely unrelated, and the few common denominators of alternative medicine that do exist are unmitigated nonsense.

11 Responses to The common assumptions of alternative medicine are unmitigated nonsense

  • “Alternative medicine is an odd term (but it is probably as good or bad as any other term for it).”

    There always has been a need to distinguish between practices which did seem to provide genuine benefit and have effects on diseases and illnesses and those alternatives which did not. In the course of history, shamans came to be distinguished from professional physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen. Francis Bacon ushered in new methods for determining the reproducibility, plausibility and ability of methods to affect illnesses. And so very slowly, we are now engaged with ‘evidence based medicine’, ‘science based medicine’ and other contemporary systems intended to be honest and display intellectual integrity.

    In the early twentieth century, methods outside the conventional paradigm were referred to as ‘Fringe’, and then in the 1960s, as an alternative culture arose, ‘Alternative’. Before long, that term fell into disuse and the marketeers devised ‘Complementary’ – claiming their products, processes and practices ‘complemented’ conventional care. Not so, or they would have become ‘medicine’!

    The most regularly used term came to be CAM (which I refer to as ‘camistry, practised on camees by camists’).
    I also have suggested ‘Condimentary medicine’ – indicating the methods might be nice and add flavour, but have no other effect!

    Over the years other brands have emerged for marketing purposes: ‘Eclectic medicine’; Naprapathy; Anthrosophical Medicine are still practised. ‘Naturopathy’ was a trade marked term for methods still used by some practitioners. The promoters of nonsense are now devising fresh terms such as ‘Functional’ and ‘Integrated/Integrative’ (without ever troubling to identify just what it is they with to see integrated).

    ‘Complementary’ was added to ‘Alternative’ for no better reason than to give the impression the modality could be a useful adjunct to regular orthodox medicine, and to help marketing thereby.
    ‘Chiropractic’ of course was founded on different principles to those of medicine (its founder D. D. Palmer said so), and so is neither complementary nor can be used safely as an alternative to medicine. It is what it is: ‘Non-orthodox medicine’
    Some folks like that.

    For the rest: AM is as good a term as any – except for ‘camistry’!

      • Or ‘scamistry’ conducted by scamists on poor gullible scamees.
        The latter are also referred to as ‘marks’ amongst the fraternity of fraudsters.
        (I’m just not keen on capital letters other than to start a sentence or for proper nouns – reads a bit awkwardly. Even the BMA has dropped capital letters for most of its committees and wherever it reasonably can do so.)

  • If you assume that “holistic”, when applied to CAM, means “not demonstrably effective”, it makes much more sense.

  • You know those lists of pithy quotes that make you stop and say to yourself, “I wish I’d said that.”?

    This, from EE, should be on those lists:

    “To be clear, experience and belief can fool us profoundly, and science is a tool to prevent us being misled by them.”

  • “Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.”

    Richard Feynman 1984

  • I think that word got out a long time ago that conventional medicine is not as effective as its proponents and the men in white coats would like us to believe. It can also be prohibitively expensive, which is why people look elsewhere for cures. Besides, a wide range of the main illness killers can be treated and cured with foods, diet, fasting, lifestyle changes, and exercise, and by de-stressing yourself. And prevented too, of course. If you get diabetes, for example, you don’t go to a doctor. You can cure yourself with food, diet, exercise, and suchlike. It’s amazing what cruciferous vegetables will cure. Why on earth would someone go to a doctor, if they have a headache? Conventional doctors won’t approve of this, of course, as this affects their income.

    This blog has become a rather pointless “Holy War” on alternative treatments. You will never succeed in your goal of stamping out alternative treatments to illness; and people worldwide will continue to use alternative treatments as long as conventional medicine fails people and becomes increasingly unaffordable. What’s the success rate of the Big Three conventional cancer treatments, which are incredibly expensive? 2.8% of people live up to 5 years. That’s not a good return on investment, but the doctors get rich.

    What about changing the focus of the blog to become a positive assessment of alternative treatments instead of condemning them all? Some of them have worked for even thousands of years, such as some Chinese medicine treatments. I can’t believe that even your most passionate supporters here don’t use alternative treatments, including food, when they have an ailment.

    • “This blog has become a rather pointless “Holy War” on alternative treatments.”
      yes, of course, for someone unable of critical thinking, criticism must seem like a war.
      GROW UP!

    • “What’s the success rate of the Big Three conventional cancer treatments, which are incredibly expensive? 2.8% of people live up to 5 years.”
      not only not able to think critically, but also unable to reproduce correct information?
      ” Some of them have worked for even thousands of years…”
      not only not able to think critically, but also unable to recognise even the most obvious fallacies?

    • “I think that word got out a long time ago that conventional medicine is not as effective as its proponents and the men in white coats would like us to believe.”

      First of all, women—and other genders—wear white coats, too. But that’s not the point.

      Not all medical treatment is as effective as we would like it to be. There is no doubt about that. That’s why we have this crazy concept called science, so we can improve.

      “This blog has become a rather pointless “Holy War” on alternative treatments.”

      Hardly pointless. Lives are at stake. What’s the science behind some of these claims? I am not a doctor and I want to learn. (Wait a minute, if I’m not a doctor, I think I might start using ND (Not Doctor) after my name!) I want to know the science from a credible source. This is a credible source.

      I find this to be a much-needed blog post and discussion forum about what works and what doesn’t—and the science behind the reasoning. When there is solid science behind woo woo, it, too, will become “medicine” and will be discussed here in that light, I’m sure.

      “Conventional doctors won’t approve of this, of course, as this affects their income.”

      If I hear one more time that doctors are in it for the money. . . Have you ever met a doctor? Sure, they are not all shining personalities, but that accusation is stunningly unwarranted—and so lame, especially when I hear it from NDs (remember, Not Doctors?) and other quacks whose only contribution to society is to stimulate their own economy.

      “Some of them have worked for even thousands of years, such as some Chinese medicine treatments.”

      I won’t even go near the grammar there. What you meant to say, I’m sure, is that some of them HAVE BEEN AROUND for thousands of years. That doesn’t mean they work. Critical thinking, man. Try it.

      Do you know what I find most fascinating about your comment? The fact that, once again, I am convinced that trying to convince someone whose mind has already snapped shut and who will never listen to logic, let along reason, is a good idea. Especially at 5:00 a.m.

      But it is kind of fun. 🙂

    • @Peter McAlpine

      What’s the success rate of the Big Three conventional cancer treatments, which are incredibly expensive? 2.8% of people live up to 5 years.

      Please advise us of your source for this piece of total, utter and complete bollocks.

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