Alternative medicine: same thing, different words?

Apr 30 2011 Published by under Absurd medical claims, Medicine

When discussing the absurdity of religious disagreements, peacemakers often make the point that all religions believe in one underlying Truth or Deity, that all religions are guided by the idea that we should be excellent to each other.  I don't believe this, but it serves as a useful analogy.

In medicine, those trying to bring together science-based practitioners and alternative practitioners (or more honestly, alternative docs trying to justify their practices) often argue that we are simply using different words for the same concepts, that one person's chi is another one's "life force", "energy", or some such thing.

In religious arguments, no one can be proven wrong about who's god is the real one, but it can be pretty well determined whether or not religions "believe in" the same underlying principles.    One question deals with the unanswerable, the other with written texts and observable practices---in other words, data.  The same is true for medicine.

The idea that there is some sort of animating force travelling through channels or meridians in the body is an old one.  Sometimes the language is explicitly mystical, and sometimes it is couched in science-y words.  Chiropractors speak of "subluxations" blocking the flow of something-or-other and causing disease.  Whether such a phenomenon exists (it doesn't) is easily discovered.

Lay people very often buy in to vitalist ideas about human health. It goes well with our propensity to believe in mind-body dualism, with religious ideas of soul. People like to believe things, like to find patterns to organize their world based on their own observations, even if these observations are based on false premises.  This is why we have professionals.  We don't let anyone design a bridge, but someone who understands the physics involved.  And we shouldn't let people practice medicine if they have a fundamental misunderstanding of how the body works.

All this is in support of the premise that Dr. Oz is no longer a real doctor, but more of a mystic.  Currently his website is hosting a series on "Fighting Fat with Ayurveda".  Ayurveda is a form of pre-scientific medicine from the Indian subcontinent.  It is based on thousands of years of tradition, but has been largely abandoned by those who can afford real medicine.  It shares with other traditional systems vitalist ideas of unmeasurable life-forces.

As I read the first part of the series I am struck by two patterns.  First, it shows a supposedly real doctor (Oz) implicitly supporting disproved ideas about health and failing to give the real data. Just as disturbing is the "carnival barker" tone of the series:

Over the next several weeks, I will be sharing some of the most powerful ayurvedic secrets for removing amafrom your body and helping you achieve your weight loss resolution.

This idea that there is some secret out there for fat people, diabetics, people with cancer, or whomever, a secret so powerful yet simple, is patently absurd, yet alluring.   But what follows could have been lifted from any internet quack site.  It is a list of symptoms that supposedly tells you if you have excessive "toxins" in your body.  The whole idea of "toxins" being the cause of disease is also old, and also not based on reality.  It's not that toxic substances aren't important, it's that the word is not used the same by real doctors and quacks.

But the language!  Vey's mir, it could have been lifted from any Morgellons, chronic Lyme disease, or other fake disease websites.

The first step is to determine if you have an excessive amount of toxins in your body. If you answer “yes” to the majority of the statements below, you have an excessive accumulation of ama:

1.  I tend to feel obstruction/blockages in my body—constipation, congestion/heaviness in the head area, blocked nose, or a general feeling of non-clarity.

2.  When I wake up in the morning, I do not feel clear; it takes me quite some time to feel really awake.

3.  I tend to feel tired or exhausted mentally and physically.

4.  I get common colds or similar ailments several times a year.

5.  I tend to feel heaviness in the body.

6.  I tend to feel that something is not functioning properly in the body – breathing, digestion, elimination or other.

7.  I tend to feel lazy (i.e., the capacity to work is there, but there is no inclination).

8.  I often suffer from indigestion.

9.  I tend to spit repeatedly or have a bad taste in my mouth.

10.  Often, I have no taste for food and no real appetite.

11.  My tongue is often coated with a thick film, especially in the morning.

Everyone has some or many of these complaints at one time or another, and many of these are normal.  Most people get several colds a year.  Most people get indigestion.  These vague statements are usually designed, in my opinion, to show how "common" an imaginary problem is by making all readers victims of this excess of ama.  And on many websites, such lists, in my opinion, are simply used to draw in pigeons for the fleecing.

Believers in alternative medicine and real doctors are most certainly not talking about the same concepts using different words.  We physicians are talking about real, measurable, testable concepts; things that can be seen, touched, altered.  They are talking about imaginary energies and toxins that cannot be demonstrated to even exist, much less be manipulated to improve health.

There is a long history of real medicine, flaws and all, saving lives and improving health.  All the rest is based on dreams and greed.

16 responses so far

  • Honest Person says:

    What an embarrassing arrogant, egotistical, and mostly incorrect attack on your competitors.

    "Lay people very often buy in to vitalist ideas about human health. It goes well with our propensity to believe in mind-body dualism, with religious ideas of soul. People like to believe things, like to find patterns to organize their world based on their own observations, even if these observations are based on false premises. "

    Yes those stupid lay people and their beliefs, its all their fault. Bad doctors blame their patients, good doctors heal them.

    "This is why we have professionals. We don't let anyone design a bridge, but someone who understands the physics involved. "

    This made me laugh out loud. Yes, just leave everything to us 'professionals'. Somehow the pyramids were built and are still standing and 'the professionals' can't figure out how it was done despite the apparent lack of 'professional societies' at the time. Your claim of a monopoly on truth is as ridiculous as it is false.

    "Everyone has some or many of these complaints at one time or another, and many of these are normal."

    This is what modern medicine has devolved to. Illness is now normal. I can understand why modern medicine would like to promote this view, as its certainly servcs to keep the masses sick and in need of constant 'treatment', and obscure modern medicines many obvious failings, but the masses are quickly realizing the folly of this and turning to better alternatives from less arrogant and egotistical practioners who don't believe illness is a required state of health.

    • MonkeyPox says:

      Ooohhh...this should be fun.

    • PalMD says:

      Honest =/= correct, mm?

      What an embarrassing arrogant, egotistical, and mostly incorrect attack on your competitors

      This in a unsubstantive criticism, a simple ad hominem attack, with the addition of "begging the question" at the end---"competitors?" I don't lose business to quacks. I'm plenty busy.

      Yes those stupid lay people and their beliefs, its all their fault. Bad doctors blame their patients, good doctors heal them.

      Yes, it is convenient to confuse tone for content (and I did say "we" humans). There is a big difference between stupidity and lack of sufficient knowledge---and mendacity.

      This made me laugh out loud. Yes, just leave everything to us 'professionals'. Somehow the pyramids were built and are still standing and 'the professionals' can't figure out how it was done despite the apparent lack of 'professional societies' at the time. Your claim of a monopoly on truth is as ridiculous as it is false.

      Do you really think the pyramids were designed by your average Hathor? Ancient Egypt had a sophisticated knowledge of many things, but this knoweldge was not available to everyone. People specialized. The person embalmbing kings didn't also do logistics for the Army (or one supposes).

      "Professional" is not an epithet. I have no interest in driving over the bridge designed by an amateur.

      As to "illness being normal"----it is. That doesn't make it good. And to believe that this is what I wrote is either obtuse or mendacious. You have created a false dichotomy.

    • daedalus2u says:

      Good POE. That first line was a killer. Good thing I wasn't drinking anything when I read it.

  • Marvin says:

    To carry the analogy further, some alt-med providers offer different flavors of woo that conflict with one another, just as basic beliefs of different religions directly conflict with one another. Many claim they hold the secret to all disease, but the secrets vary among the different woos.

    A naturopath may offer homeopathy and herbal medicine, or both reflexology and acupuncture.

  • JB says:

    Marvin, I would suggest that homeopathy and herbal medicine offer an extraordinary
    synergy. Just a handful of herbs could produce countless millions of doses. And all alternative medicine would benefit from an integration with Voodoo, which offers an alternative kind of death.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dr Oz's mystical fascination is explored in Martin Gardner's last column

    http://www.csicop.org/si/show/swedenborg_and_dr._oz

    "It is not widely known that Oz has been profoundly influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish Protestant fundamentalist who, late in life, became a spiritualist and Sweden’s most famous trance medium."

  • Honest person says:

    "I don't lose business to quacks. I'm plenty busy."

    I'm quite sure you are. All repeat customers I'm guessing...

    • PalMD says:

      One would hope. It wouldn't do to have patients pass on after one visit. Preventive medicine and all...

    • Vicki says:

      I envy you, if neither you nor anyone you care about is living with a chronic condition. Are there no diabetics in your social circle? Do none of your relatives have arthritis?

      Or do you walk away if a relative develops cancer, and expect anyone with chronic pain or asthma to just "tough it out"?

  • J Stewart says:

    Having just read "Trick or Treatment" this article is especially interesting.

    Firstly, I think the mind/body connection should perhaps not be dismissed too readily, as it at least has given us the demonstrably powerful placebo effect! Secondly, and this is something not really addressed here or in the book, there are sadly some busy doctors who will send, say, a chronically overweight person with an unhealthy diet away with some vague advice to lose weight and some more pills for their cholesterol/blood pressure problems and no interest in their other ongoing side effects. Science aside, is this really preferable to them sitting down for a full "consultation" with a caring person (or website!) who gives them some herbal tea (which may even have active ingredients) and encourages/supports them in embracing a weight loss program, cutting out the junk, and eating more fresh food, and maybe doing some yoga? In "gray area" situations like that it's hard to say that the evidence-based medicine provided by the doctor is doing the patient more good. Unfortunately the likes of Dr Oz owe at least some of their popularity to the negative experiences patients have had at the hands of uncaring/arrogant doctors, in the minority though they may be.

    Added to that, alluding to the idea that everything can be measured, weighed, and quantified fails to take into account the many areas in which science, economics, and mathematics have failed to get to grips with the likes of art, love, and experiences that are simply not able to be explained by current knowledge. It tends to give the impression one is not moved or concerned by anything beyond numbers and data, which can perhaps elicit negative responses among less logical types. Hinting that one is taking the wearisome but currently in vogue old science v. religion approach is an unfortunate link with the arrogance of the current crop of Born Again Atheists, many of whom appear to be just as shrill and inconsiderate of the nuances of belief as their fundamentalist religious counterparts. In my opinion, none of this helps assuage the alternative medicine devotee's fears that evidence-based medicine is practiced only by cold, uncaring doctors.

    The dilemma for doctors is to point out the obvious errors in the alternative approach without sounding like the very "white coated pill pushers" they are stereotypically presented as being.

    With all the things we do know about the human body and mind, there is still so much we don't know, and not everything can be cured - an unpopular sentiment in these times.

  • Donna B. says:

    My only complaint about this post is that I think you should have written "plucking" rather than "fleecing", not because it's more 'anatomically' correct but because I like alliteration.

  • PalMD says:

    You are of course correct.

  • Alex says:

    In the end, all modern medicines are approved by statistics. Trials are conduced with a control group to determine how well the drug works and to identify negative effects. The whole system is regulated by the government.

    I have to admit that I have not done much research, but has any statistical support for alternative medicines been presented in a similar way?

    Are alternate medicines regulated in the same way as modern medicine? How long does it take a modern medical breakthrough to reach desperate patients? How long would it take me to invent an alternate theory and make a small fortune promoting this idea?

  • Q: How long would it take to invent an alternate theory and make a small fortune promoting this idea?
    A: Not long. ;- ) This Google search page lists a dozen sites that mostly link back to a massage therapist in Venice, Florida, who provides "certified" tuning fork therapy, selling tools, books and training -- culminating in a diploma. Beware, we are warned! Unless your TFT has been trained there, he/she is a fake! The unintentional irony is delicious.

    http://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1GGGE_enUS412US412&aq=f&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=tuning+fork+therapy

  • Interested says:

    This is the usual rhetoric: present the best of your own world and the worst of the other's.

    It hardly takes a genius to observe the mind-boggling deception of much "evidence-based medicine." History and contemporary science are full of harmful treatments that were defended as "proven" and others that were maligned because thorough evidence had not yet proven their effectiveness. It's a cliche, but it's true. You can find a study to justify just about any course of action. Look at the NIH's compendium of studies of alternative medicine, for example.

    A good example of the deception of science is the way in which psychology has been treated. In recent years, cognitive-behavioral therapy has been treated as the gold standard. It is supposedly evidence-based. There have been serious efforts to prohibit all but CBT instruction in the training of psychotherapists. The professional schools of psychology have regarded the unconscious as a mere historical artifact given a day or two of notice in students' education.

    And yet repeated studies, including a massive meta-analysis, establish beyond any argument that all forms of psychotherapy have equal effects and that the thing all the effective treatments have in common is a particular bond between the patient and therapist. But CBT advocates plow ahead discounting this, in their determination to be "medically sound."

    And then there's the issue of psychotropic drugs. The "science" behind those has been exposed for the sham it is, including the outright and intentional deception of the pharmaceutical industry with psychiatrists happily joining the lucrative endorsement of the drugs. Books like Robert Whitaker's "Anatomy of an Epidemic" expose the horror of "evidence-based psychiatry" when greed enters the picture. Go to the countries with nationalized health care and you will not only find very limited use of such drugs. You will find a much higher recovery rate. (The UN has verified this twice, repeating a study that American psychiatrists insisted couldn't be accurate.)

    As it happens, I grew up in the Swedenborgian church, mentioned here in another effort to discredit alternative medicine. It too is grossly misrepresented in the linked column. Oh, Swedenborg was wacky, to say the least, but even the poets who followed him understood that he was about engagement of the imagination. The same was true of Freud, who explicitly said so in 1939. He knew very well that for his work to be accepted it had to be represented as scientific, when, he said, it was writers and other artists who understood it most. (And his work -- surprise! -- has been validated by neuroscience in recent years. Yes, there IS an unconscious!)

    As a kid, I had doctors who practiced both allopathic and homeopathic medicine. I have no doubt the latter provided placebo effects (just as many psychotropic drugs apparently do). I know of no MD who practices only homeopathic medicine. And I certainly know of no Swedenborgians that follow the Christian "Scientists" in refusing allopathic medical care.

    I could go on and on. As both a psychotherapist and a journalist, I have reported on alternative treatments for years. I agree that most of them have no demonstrable scientific basis. (Try "alien abduction therapy" for a special treat.) But much can be similarly said about supposedly evidence-based medicine. Anyone who puts all their faith in either course is a fool, and to a degree much greater than most people understand.