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.
The algorithms used by Amazon to determine the rank order of products are complex and proprietary, but as far as I know they are not based on sales. The Consumers’ Association magazine, Which?, has had Amazon in their sights over the past few months, and their findings are quite sobering, though they have been looking more at consumer products such as mobile phone chargers. Customer reviews (specifically star ratings) are an important part of the ranking system, and a surprisingly large proportion of these are fake. There are companies (many of them based in China) whose sole business is to generate fake Amazon reviews for their clients, which is why many of the listings on the first few pages are for products from completely unknown manufacturers which are often badly-made, do not conform to international standards and may well be unsafe.
Google logs every search and every Web page visited following a Google search, and sells this information for use in targeted advertising. I don’t know what Amazon’s practice is here, but it would be interesting to perform the same search from different computers and different accounts and see if the ranking of books is the same.
Doing my own search on Amazon on “Alternative Medicine”, the first item wasn’t a book at all, but a gadget called a Mini-Mini-Rayonex claiming to “increase cell activity and cell metabolism by actively supporting your performance and regenerative ability”. Restricting the search to books I get:
6. Ernst: Alternative Medicine: A critical assessment of 150 modalities
8. Mark Kane: Research made easy in Complementary and Alternative medicine (this seems to be a guide to proper research methods)
9. Ruth Hull: Anatomy and Physiology for Therapists and Healthcare Professionals
10. Roger Phillips: Wild Food: A Complete Guide to Foragers (Roger Phillips is a well-known mycologist who has written the definitive guide to fungi occurring in the UK)
11. Open University: Issues in Complementary and Alternative Medicine
14. Joe Dispenza: You are the Placebo
18. Robin Harford: Edible Wild Plants of the UK and Ireland
This is in the fist 20 – I’m afraid I have run out of time to look further. Many of the other hits were various encyclopaedias of plants used in herbal medicine – I used to keep one such in my office as it was helpful to know what my patients might be taking and how herbal remedies could interact with the drugs I was prescribing. With regard to edible wild plants, something I have always enjoyed is eating something that I have found growing wild myself, though please note that there are strict laws on foraging and most of the time it is illegal to pick whatever you want. It can also be dangerous if you misidentify a species.
I just did the search on UK Amazon (books, ‘alternative medicine). this is what I got:
1) The Handmade Apothecary: Healing herbal remedies: Healing herbal recipes
2) Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine
3) Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide (Alternative Medicine Guides)
4) Herbal Medicine Natural Remedies: 150 Herbal Remedies to Heal Common Ailments
5) Encyclopedia Of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments
6) Alternative Medicine: A Critical Assessment of 150 Modalities
7) Research Made Easy in Complementary and Alternative Medicine
8) Issues in complementary and alternative medicine
9) The Juice Habit Made Easy: With Tips, Tricks & Healthy Fruit & Vegetable Juice Recipes (1) (Personal Detox Coach’ Simple Guide to Healthy)
10) Ayurveda: Unlocking the Secrets of Hindu Healing Through the Ayurveda Diet, Yoga, Aromatherapy, and Meditation
11)The Secret of Secrets ( interview with the deadman ) 1 Part
as an aside.
this book is remarkable: Research Made Easy in Complementary and Alternative Medicine by Mark Kane | 21 Jan 2004
Medline lists ZERO alt med research authored by Mark Kane!
this seems to prove my point about the quality of SCAM books very well
Without looking at his book more closely it is difficult to know what advice Mark Kane is giving about research methodology or whether it is sound. However, on the face of it he doesn’t appear to be promoting any particular alternative treatment.
Amazon’s system of listing books is notoriously perverse.
Searching for Real Secrets of Alternative Medicine under ‘Alternative Medicine’ gives no result. If searching under ‘Secrets of Alternative Medicine’ -it’s second!
Clearly Amazon doesn’t rate ‘real’ information.
And Trick or Treatment is priced at £4.49, whilst Organon of Medicine by one Samuel Hahnemann is only £0.49. Cheap at the price!
(I’ve checked the Amazon list twice just now, Initially T or T was immediately above Organon. Now ‘Hedgerow Medicine’ intervenes. Dunno why this happens.)
For items such as second-hand books where there might not be a recommended price to begin with this can lead to strange computerised bidding wars, for instance if two sellers on Amazon set their price to be slightly below the lowest of their competitors, or slightly above the highest. This can result in low-value items being priced at tens of thousands of dollars, and high-value items occasionally being offered (and sold) for pence.
I always question your narrowly focused blog research methods used to justify your negative conclusions about most forms of alternative medical practice. This one is no exception.
“I do not consider my new investigation into this area to be a reliable piece of research.” Edzard Ernst
Your Amazon search was too broad. There are thousands of books about all forms of alternative medicine. See search list I copied from Amazon using the very broad search term “homeopathy books”.
Health, Fitness & Dieting
Alternative & Holistic Medicine
See All 11 Departments
too narrowly focussed?
Sandra try to make up your mind, please.
Are you really that easily confused? Try brushing up on your writing / research / publishing skills.
Thank you Sandra; I don’t know what I would do without your regular and constructive advice!
Lol. I’ve never laughed so hard. So glad I read the comments. And I agree with Sandra on this.
pleased to have contributed to your happiness – laughter is the best therapy!