Don’t Get Scammed

I spent most of the last week reading Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst’s Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial. Besides being written in clear, understandable English – always a plus – the book is full of information that might save you from getting scammed. Because this – the issue of whether placebos count as valid treatment aside – is what’s at stake with most alternative medicine.

In fact, the term “alternative medicine” is an oxymoron. It’s like saying “right” is “alternative left,” or that there is “science” and “alternative science.” There is science and pseudoscience. When a new remedy or treatment is proven to work, it stops being alternative and becomes medicine. Alternative medicine is akin to quackery. As Robert Todd Carroll of Skepdic puts it:

What quackery lacks in scientific study it sometimes makes up for by prescribing generous portions of caring—sometime sincere but often counterfeit—and overdoses of false hope.

Worst of all, most have us have probably been scammed at least once by such practioners as chiropractors, herbalists, acupuncturists, reflexologists, not to mention the really wacky stuff like threapeautic touch, Reiki and crystal therapy. Punch any of these into Skepdic and read up on them before shelling out.

Of course, you may not want to know what skeptics have to say about a treatment you’ve been using. Let’s say you’ve been having acupuncture regularly for years. You’re convinced it works. Why are you going to listen to some shmo like Robert Todd Carroll or Simon Singh tell you that you’re just buying extravagant placebos? Well, that’s what the trials tell us. None of your favorite alternative treatments – underline none – have proven to be anything more than placebos after having undergone rigorous testing. When you reflect on the voodoo-like nature of most of them, involving catchy concept-words like “energy”, “mind-body”and “spirit,” this should come as no surprise.

Some, however, will argue that quackery is an acceptable method of healing the sick. Why take away hope? The counter-argument is that lying to patients undermines the trust on which the doctor-patient relationship is based. And it opens the door to charlatans of every stripe. Like Kevin Trudeau. Allowing for “ethical quackery” would erase whatever distinction we make between concepts such as “truth” and “falsehood”, rendering them meaningless. After all, why bother developing and testing real medicine when all we need are sugar pills with fancy names? Why bother getting a medical degree when we could all become faith healers or homeopaths simply by hanging a sign over our door or on our website? Unless we are able to admit that there is a real and worthwhile difference between selling a product known to work and a simple placebo, we might as well send our children to witchdoctors and our elderly parents to the bloodletter.

Here are a few websites to help you out: Quackwatch, Bad Science and, of course, Skepdic. There’s a lot of information out there, but it would be prudent to find out what actual scientists and doctors have to say before paying for a treatment based on some mythical Oriental tradition which probably never even existed.