There can be no doubt, many people suffer from iatrophobia —a fear of doctors. Being poked with needles, recommended for surgeries, or placed on never-ending drug regiments can make people want to curl up in a ball somewhere and hide forever.
As a result of this somewhat understandable fear, people often look to alternative medicine for the answers to their problems. Whether it be practices like chiropractic, homeopathic, holistic, acupuncture—the list is mind numbing.
So first, let’s look at the definition of the word medicine.
the science or practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease (in technical use often taken to exclude surgery).
a compound or preparation used for the treatment or prevention of disease, especially a drug or drugs taken by mouth.
When discussing the idea of alternative medicine, it should first be understood that there is essentially no such thing as alternative medicine.
- There is medicine: practices or compounds that treat a medical condition or disease.
- There is non-medicine: practices or compounds that do not treat a disease or medical condition.
There is no middle ground here, the item in question either works, or it doesn’t work. The level of effectiveness may very, but there has to be a noted effect, above the margin of error or the placebo effect, or it cannot be considered medicine.
For hundreds of years, scientists have laid out the path to determine which is which. It’s called a clinical trial, an extension of the scientific method. While the concept goes back thousands of years, in the last century, the process is now pretty consistent and highly effective.
In a fictional example, I will create a drug called Libertol (I had to throw a little politics in this thing), and I will have invented it to treat a disease called oppressionitis.
Assuming I’m a drug company, I’m going to be biased to confirm that the millions of dollars I spent developing Libertol actually yielded a functional, and thus marketable product. Since that bias could either unintentionally skew my results, or raise concerns I might purposefully have skewed the results, I would find an independent party to test Libertol in order to rule out any actual or perceived biases I might have.
The independent testing facility would start by looking for a number of people with oppresionitis, and ask them if they’d be willing to submit to a study on a new drug to treat this horrible disease. For the sake of argument, let’s say we get 500 people to be our guinea pigs.
Why 500? Because “anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence.” (Great science maxim #1, there will be more) But what do scientists mean by that?
Imagine you flip a coin once, and it lands heads up. Would you then assume that every time you flip a coin, it will land heads up because of that one flip? Of course you wouldn’t. That is essentially anecdotal evidence. One, or barely more than one, instance is almost never to be treated as if its results are indicative of what should be expected on a consistent basis. This is also why you are wise to often get a 2nd or even 3rd opinion when seeing doctors.
So maybe you flip the coin ten times? It lands heads seven out of ten due to random chance, which is not implausible. If I’ve done my math right, is likely to happen about 1 out of 8 times (15:125 to be exact). So does that mean a coin is prone to land heads up 70% of the time? Again, of course not. The more times you flip it, the closer it will get to its actual probability of 50:50 as the odds start to balance out.
So when doing a clinical trial, the more people you can test, the more accurate your results will be, and this is why we want 500 people in our above fictional example.
These trials are actually done in phases, with only about 20-80 people at first, if the drug ends up having detrimental side effects, you don’t want it to affect a large number of people, after all. But by the time the study hits phase 3, there will likely be thousands of participants being evaluated. But I’m simplifying the three phases down to one, and the process in general, for the purposes of this article.
Once volunteers are gathered up, half of them will be given the actual drug, the other half will be given a placebo (a non-drug). This placebo is designed to control for the placebo effect, a condition whereby a person will convince themselves a drug works, even if it doesn’t.
The placebo effect will generally not alter things that are purely quantitative, like blood pressure, heart rate, or other measurable conditions, but it can have quite the profound effect on subjective data, such as pain level and other issues the user merely reports on versus being tested with equipment.
The results of the group who took Libertol would then be tested against the people who took the placebo they thought was Libertol, and Bob’s your uncle—you have a result.
If Libertol actually worked, it would show as such by being more effective than the placebo was at treating oppressionitis. Otherwise, the results will come back as “no more effective than a placebo,” and Libertol would be sent to the ineffective drug graveyard in the sky, barring any noted side effects that may be beneficial elsewhere.
Viagra being one of the best examples of this phenomena, was originally designed for blood pressure issues, which it was horrible for, but turned out to be quite the rock star at “pitching tents.”
So the moral here, is that you shouldn’t take medical advice from someone who tried something once and it worked. There are infinite other possibilities to explain why it seemed effective, rather than it actually being effective. Instead, ask your doctor and if you’re a true skeptic, research yourself for clinical trial results.
I was recommended acupuncture by my neurologist for headaches, only to do my research using sites like sciencebasedmedicine.org. Much as I expected, I found that clinical trials showed acupuncture is “no more effective than a placebo.”
People who had actual acupuncture reported similar results, within the margin of error, to people who were treated with fake acupuncture where the needles were purposely misplaced. It has never been shown to be more effective despite its hundreds of years of history. The only “ancient Chinese secret” here, is that it doesn’t work.
While we place a lot of trust in doctors, not all of them adhere to the scientific method exclusively, some are flat-out quacks. But if you want medicine versus non-medicine, you should demand as such. So lesson learned, I won’t be seeing that neurologist again.
There are two types of alternative medicine practitioners:
Fraudsters who know they’re taking advantage of you, or
ignorant people who simply don’t know better. But why give your money to either one?
If someone is purposefully deceiving you for a fee, that is a horribly immoral practice where you take someone’s hard-earned money that could be used for something that would help them, and instead sell them something that won’t. If I lived in an anarchistic country, I would want to destroy every one of these sociopaths. They are valueless human beings, in my opinion.
But even if they’re just ignorant and think these practices actually work, they’re still taking your hard-earned money for something that doesn’t. Assuming you don’t have money to burn, why do exactly that?
It is true, an argument can be made that if the placebo effect does work for things like pain, giving someone a placebo might make them feel better without introducing foreign chemicals into their body. But it’s still inherently dishonest, and I would hope none of you would willingly pay someone to lie to you.
All health claims are scientific in nature, meaning there are biological processes that are either going to get better, stay the same, or get worse in your body after treatment. So trust in things that have passed the test of the scientific method, and understand that “that which can be destroyed by the evidence, should be.” (Great science maxim #2)
“Extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence.” (Great science maxim #3) This is what clinical trials provide beyond any reasonable doubt.
People like Harry Houdini spent their lives trying to debunk such fraudsters. Penn & Teller had a show called Bullshit on Showtime which aired for eight seasons debunking them as well. See an excerpt demonstrating the placebo effect here.
James Randi is famous for purposefully overdosing on homeopathy, taking a “lethal” dose, to show that if such a dose had zero effect, the prescribed amount surely must do nothing.
So if I am a libertarian, why do I care? Shouldn’t people be free to put into their body whatever they want? Absolutely!
While I would never prosecute a non-medicine consumer (I refuse to call it alternative medicine), fraud is a violation of your right to property, specifically, your money, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
These people get away with fraud by making non-scientific claims such as saying these things increase your energy or boost your immune system. An actual boosting of your immune system would essentially be an autoimmune disease where you body attacks its own cells. Something you really, REALLY don’t want. But it is effectively immeasurable since there is no number by which your immune system can be rated with, in a manner such as blood pressure or cell count.
I’d like to quickly dispel a couple of these myths by showing you the purpose, methodology and power of skepticism, or critical though, hopefully encouraging you to do your own.
Things like acupuncture, for instance, are said to be practices that are hundreds of years old (as if that is somehow evidence), and that doctors won’t often recommend them because there’s no money to be made. Might I point out that acupuncturists do in fact work for money? Therefore there is actually money to be made—they’re making it. In order to believe this argument, you must do no critical thinking whatsoever. I just dispelled it in one sentence.
People argue we have a cure for cancer, but drug companies are suppressing it to make more money on drugs that only treat cancer, not cure it. This one requires a little more skepticism, but let’s bring up some valuable points to debunk this.
- Drug companies do make drugs that cure cancer. Chemotherapy and radioactive seeds are but a couple. We simply don’t have one drug that cures all cancer all the time, nor one drug that doesn’t have harmful and potentially fatal side effects as chemotherapy does.
- This assumption also means that a drug company would have to invest the typically millions of dollars required to develop a drug that works, then shelve it without recouping any of that money as a return on their investment. Why would they develop it in the first place if they don’t want such a return? These conspiracy theorists are arguing how greedy drug companies are, then asserting a claim that they are purposefully throwing money away—an overwhelming contradiction.
- Then we must also assume that the scientists who went to medical school, usually with the intent of saving lives, many of them specifically dreaming of being “the one” who cures cancer, spent years developing a drug that works. However, once realizing their dream of curing cancer, completely eschewed their ideals and agreed to suppress the drug for money. A theory that’s insulting to every moral medical student who ever slaved away for eight years in college to save your life.
- Lastly, the above two bullets would both involve more than one person. The drug company has a board of directors, and the labs often have tens or hundreds of people on staff, yet not one of them headed over to CNN or Fox News to blow the whistle?
I could go on and on pointing out the logical fallacies and ignorance of thinking these ways. But hopefully my two examples of how to be a proper skeptic will inspire you to do more critical thinking of your own, instead of buying into these radical conspiracies. The life and the pocketbook you save could be your own.
P.S. I linked to an article debunking acupuncture above. Here is another debunking homeopathy with what is effectively simple, yet astounding math. I promise, it is worth the read. (Click the picture)
Also, here’s a great video demo from Twitter’s @ScienceBabe