It would be interesting, I thought, to get some information on what type of books on so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are being most frequently sold and read in different countries. In particular, it would be relevant to see how many of them are books that one might recommend.
But how would one go about researching this?
The simplest solution, I guessed, would be to go on the Amazon sites of various countries and have a look. And that’s precisely what I did a few days ago. I decided to scan the first 100 books that are listed under ‘alternative medicine’ and pick out the ones that are non-promotional, factual or critical. I did this little research in 4 countries: USA, UK, France and Germany.
Here are my findings:
Not one of the 100 books seems to offer a critical assessment of SCAM. That means the percentage of what I might call recommendable books (books that do not promote unproven or disproven SCAMs to the unsuspecting public) seems to be precisely zero.
On place 6, I was delighted to find my recent book Alternative Medicine: A Critical Assessment of 150 Modalities. On place 14 was You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter. And on place 70 Trick or Treatment?: Alternative Medicine on Trial.
That makes the percentage 3.
Surprisingly, there are hardly any books in French listed in the SCAM category. Place 4 is my SCAM: So-Called Alternative Medicine, place 7 More Harm than Good?: The Moral Maze of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, place 9 Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, and place 64 Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.
The percentage is thus 4.
Not a single book met the inclusion criteria which makes the percentage a proud zero.
In 1998, we assessed for the first time books on SCAM ( Int J Risk Safety Med 1998, 11: 209-215. [the article is not Medline-listed]). We chose a random sample of 6 such books published in 1997, and assessed their contents according to pre-defined criteria. The findings showed that the advice given in these volumes was frequently misleading, not based on good evidence and often inaccurate. If followed, it would have caused significant harm to patients.
In 2006, we conducted a similar investigation which we then reported in the first and second editions of our book THE DESKTOP GUIDE TO COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE (now out of print, but the German and French translations are still available, I think). This time, we selected 7 best-sellers in SCAM and scrutinised them in much the same way. Our findings showed that almost every form of SCAM was recommended for almost every condition. There was no agreement between the 7 books which SCAM might be effective for which condition. Some treatments were even named as indications for a certain condition in one book, while, in other books, they were listed as contra-indications for the same problem. A bewildering plethora of treatments was recommended for most conditions, for instance:
- addictions: 120 different SCAMs
- arthritis: 131 different SCAMs
- asthma: 119 different SCAMs
- cancer: 133 different SCAMs
- etc. etc.
Even though, it included a much larger range of SCAM books, I do not consider my new investigation into this area to be a reliable piece of research. There are many reasons why, it can provide merely a very rough impression, e.g.:
- The lists included lots of misclassifications, i. e. books that have nothing to do with SCAM.
- Nobody seems to know by what rank order Amazon lists these books; I had hoped that it would be by sales figures, but I am not sure that this is so.
- Amazon is just one of many book sellers.
- My categorising can be criticised for being highly subjective.
Nonetheless, this little exercise, together with my previous research, might tell us something valuable after all. There are now between 30 000 and 60 000 SCAM books listed on the national Amazon sites, and even the most useless forms of SCAM are thus being promoted as though they were evidence-based forms of healthcare. Consumer demand for SCAM books is evidently substantial. The vast majority of these books are dangerously uncritical.
I believe that consumers deserve better.