How to Explain Legions of Alt Med Believers?

I have a family member with some apparent gastrointestinal issues. The other night, while visiting, she was belching like a frat house drunkard. The episodes picked up in intensity after dinner. It was quite the entertainment for my two boys, who began gulping their grape juice to keep up with their best imitations.

Amid the barnyard display, I learn this is a recurring problem for my poor relative and that she’s treating it with colonics. I tried to reason with her, explaining that there is no scientific basis for colonic cleanses. It was no use and I eventually (and stupidly) resorted to mockery, which, of course, gave my relative all the reason she needed to tune me out. “You’re always so negative on anything that is a natural health solution,” my relative said to me, which was a reference to our previous discussions on alternative medicine. Yes, she is believer and yes, my previous attempts to undermine that faith fell on deaf ears.

My relative is not uncommon. There are millions of very intelligent people who have bought into the mythology of alternative medicine, especially the claims of homeopathy. The evidence is out there that this stuff is bogus. So why do many believers in alternative medicine discount science? Are they in denial? Not properly informed by journalists? What’s the story here?

62 Responses to “How to Explain Legions of Alt Med Believers?”

  1. Alexander Harvey says:

    “The effort that Dick spent generating stories about himself was unbelievable. He insisted on being different, always. His father had taught him that. However, in many cases it doesn’t pay to be different. Doing the regular thing is often okay. For instance, he advocated on national television that people not brush their teeth or floss. We shared the same firm of dentists, and I knew that they were having terrible trouble with his teeth. They tried to persuade him to brush, or floss, or both, and he wouldn’t do it. They kept bringing in scientific papers showing that it was useful; but he kept insisting it was just a superstition.”

    Murray Gell-Mann on Richard Feynman

  2. Lewis Deane says:

    More often than not, Keith, you do ask the most fascinating and appropriate questions! By the way, there should be a prize for the first person who mentions Feynman! Harvey takes the biscuit.

    I hate to say it but there is a type, Jungian perhaps, that buys into this alt bilge. And I have found that the way to persuade towards ‘rationality’ is, first, to except the sincerity of their beliefs, to let them testify to those beliefs and then by subtle suggestion, by quietly questioning some of the more absurd (!) outer suburbs of those beliefs, slowly lay siege. Of course, as your relayed experience tells us, one can’t always be so patient! There is a symptomatology in your relative that probably can’t help provoking ridicule at the ridiculous.

    None of the above really answers your question, a question I have been asking myself, too, all my adult life. What is the ‘type’, if there is one, that believes in this nonsense? The other question would be, of course, who are the quacks that sell it! I’ll think on and get back to you.

  3. huxley says:

    Gell-Mann resented the Feynman legend:

    <i>Murray Gell-Mann angered [Feynman’s] family at a memorial service by asserting “He surrounded himself with a cloud of myth, and he spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself.” These were stories, Gell-Mann added, “in which he had to come out, if possible, looking smarter than anyone else.”</i&gt;

    Knowing that Feynman researched medical journals for his cancer, I would have to see the Gell-Mann quote supported beyond GM’s say-so. The best I found on the web was this video, in which Feynman does not argue against toothbrushing but for the willingness to question conventional beliefs.

  4. Nullius in Verba says:

    Alternative medicine is used by most people who use it for the same reasons as people use conventional medicine. Most people are not doctors or scientists, they don’t understand the theoretical basis by which medicines are supposed to work, they don’t understand biochemistry, they haven’t examined the experimental evidence. They’re told by people they accept as ‘experts’ that the pills will work, and they and the people they know or have heard of often get better after using them. We all know stories about occasions when conventional medicine didn’t work – either the doctor said it was incurable but they got better anyway, or said it was nothing and it turned out to be life-threatening. Whether you dismiss those incidents under the heading “nobody’s perfect” or whether you dismiss the doctors themselves as not as expert as they pretend to be is often a matter of personal history and worldview. And for those who reject the argument from authority, and who don’t understand the science themselves, the way alternative and conventional medicines are sold to the public is pretty much indistinguishable.
    And another big reason is confusion over what it means for a medicine to be ‘effective’. A lot of the general public think it means ‘has an effect’ or ‘makes you better’ – so when researchers say alternative medicine is not effective, they think they’re saying it has no effect at all. This is not true, and easily shown to be untrue by experiment. If there was no effect, medical research could save a fortune by skipping all those expensive double-blind trials – what medical researchers mean by ‘effective’ is ‘more effective than a placebo’ which is an entirely different statement.
    The placebo effect works – it is real, testable, reproducible. That’s why medical trials always have to compare the treatment under test against one. The placebo effect is also beneficial, often in cases where conventional medicine cannot – because of the rules – offer any similar hope or basis for belief. And it is fairly well known in medical circles, although the news is not widely broadcast, that a large proportion of the efficacy of many conventional medicines is also placebo. If a medicine is known to be 10% better than a placebo, 90% of the work is being done by the doctor’s white coat.
    So is it necessarily a good idea to try to squash somebody’s belief in altmed? (I’m not saying it’s never a good idea – clearly there are occasions when it is.) How does it feel when someone dismisses your faith in scientists in the same way? Have you ever sat down and thought through exactly why you believe in ‘science’, in the way you would want them to reconsider their alternative beliefs?
    The scientific response to your relative’s problem would be to ask “Is it working?” By the sound of it, no it isn’t. So what other alternatives are there? What are their benefits and disadvantages? How should we choose between them? What are you actually trying to achieve (e.g. if you get well does it matter how it happened?), and what possible factors besides effectiveness (like side effects or whether the medicine taste bad) have a bearing on the decision? Instead of scientific solutions, lead people towards the scientific method – and be clear that if the answer it gives turns out to be an unconventional one then you’re OK with that.
    If you don’t – if you kick up a fight because them trying it gives the ‘wrong’ answer – then not only will you fail to persuade them but you’ll turn them off science too. You’ll just persuade them that it’s just another variety of blind faith.

  5. Lewis Deane says:

    Nullus, I’m half way through your comment but I can’t help object to your statement that

    the placebo affect is also beneficial

    What is affective, in the case of placebo, is obviously ‘psychological’, ’emotional’ if you like. Sugar pills are, obviously, as such ‘affective’, in the case of pancreatic cancer, in the sense in which, the sufferer feels better. But beneficial? Not really. 

  6. Lewis Deane says:

    And, also, nobody ‘believes’ in science or even the supposed ‘universal’ assumptions of science. Or if they do, they misunderstand science. It is a misappropriation of terms. One works with working hypotheses, stands upon them as tested and testable ways of thinking and then, hopefully, climbs higher. To ‘believe’ – we leave that to religion and other absurdities!

  7. Lewis Deane says:

    Actually, I will give a better definition of ‘belief’: One only ‘believes’ in that which isn’t true!

  8. Nullius in Verba says:

    The placebo effect is more than emotional. Otherwise, as I said, medical research wouldn’t need to take it into account.
    Anxiety and stress cause the release of hormones that have many biological effects – raised blood pressure, reduced sensitivity to pain, altered insulin release and energy metabolism, appetite, immune system effects, shock, etc. These are different trade-offs to improve performance in an emergency. In a life-threatening situation, the body will take more risks and sustain more damage the better to survive. But these responses are not always very healthy, especially if sustained continuously. Alleviating that self-damage has benefits beyond the emotional.
    The mind is not independent of the body. The mind is a part of the body.
    That people misunderstand “science” is exactly what I’m saying. Non-scientists often define “science” as “what scientists say”.

  9. Lewis Deane says:

    Why do people talk about ‘belief’ when it comes to science? It is part of that ‘post-moderne’ bs that all ‘truth’ is relative and, therefore, all ‘truth’ is ‘belief’! For, see, I put the quotes where they’re supposed to be. This is the origin of this modern bilge that Keith alludes to. It goes so deep – the doubt in our rationality, in our inheritance from the Enlightenment, our doubt in the West, itself! The question that puzzles me most is, are we, in the West, immolating ourselves, as Nietzsche said, because God is dead, because we can’t live without some ‘cosmological’, moral universe, some ‘cosmic’ joke? There is a real ‘alternative’, a path out of this ‘dark forest’, which says: Yes, I except that the world, the universe is less predictable than I formally assumed, there is no ‘father’ (or ‘mother’) that will guide me ‘through it’, there is no star that is especially mine, I’m alone in this frightening, sometimes overwhelming world; but what I cannot, must not do, is except the ‘encouragement’ of those strangely allusive guides, that say comfort is here, yes, just of the path, in the darkness there. I trust my own feet, my own courage, my own mind.

  10. Lewis Deane says:

    Yes, Nullus, I should have mentioned the ‘hidden’ secret that the ’emotional’ is very much, also, the physical. Hence, the symptoms of ‘hysteria’, which, because of the deserved dissing of Freud, has been somewhat forgotten. There is such a thing as ‘self healing’, I know, and there are people who produce extraordinary ‘symptoms’ that have no real ‘explanation’. There is no such thing as a false ‘symptom’. First rule of good thinking! And, therefore, nor is there such a thing as ‘false’ belief. Being a healer, if one is one, means respecting the person. But, Nullus, don’t all these codicils and questions mean that Keith has asked the right question?

  11. Nullius in Verba says:

    It’s called ‘belief’ because belief is what it is. There may be a greater or lesser degree of justification for it, but not even science gives us access to absolute truth. That’s an essential element of the philosophy of science, and the Enlightenment. Everything is open to question.
    Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. Science picks empirical observation over authority and tradition, it demands evidence, it challenges orthodoxies, it is always willing to say “I don’t know” and always open to changing its mind. Science is the systematic development of methods on how to avoid the myriad ways we fool ourselves, and the most important of these methods is to know and accept that sometimes we will fail.
    Even with the greatest of care scientists will sometimes manage to fool themselves. So it is essential that we must never forget that these are indeed ‘beliefs’, and continually take precautions against them being wrong. It is precisely science’s openness to being wrong that makes it so much more effective than any other method at being right.

  12. Nullius in Verba says:

    Yes, I agree that Keith has asked the right question, and a very good question too. “So why do many believers in alternative medicine discount science?”
    My answer is that the scientific method is the best and most persuasive method we have for approaching truth, but that most people are not taught it or do not practice it – they are instead taught an alternative: “scientific authority”. You should believe because “scientists say so”. You don’t know the science. You haven’t seen the evidence. And you wouldn’t have the skills to critically assess it if you had. But the chap on TV with “scientist” in his job title has said so, and so you are supposed to believe.
    That, I would argue, is not science. I would also agree that it’s not practical for everyone to become scientists in order to be able to decide everything for themselves, and alternatives are needed – but the fact that real science is often impractical does not make the alternatives any more scientific.
    And because they’re not scientific, they’re vulnerable to all the myriad ways people can fool themselves just as all unscientific methods are. In the short term, passing off “scientific authority” as science can get you by, but in the long term it does a lot of damage. It would be better, I think, to explain to people that scientists are not infallible, that while it is a good heuristic, the acceptance of scientific authority is not itself scientific, and that if it is really important to them to know, that there is absolutely no alternative to learning the detailed science and all the counter-arguments yourself.
    That’s just my opinion, though. There are plenty of others who disagree, and some good arguments against. Some say practicality matters, some say that even teaching/learning the detailed science often doesn’t work. I would hope there’s room for friendly debate.

  13. Lewis Deane says:

    ‘It sciences ability to admit it’s wrong that make is so much more affective’. I’m sorry if I, slightly, misquoted you but you wrote so beautifully that I’d rather paraphrase than excerpt.

    I think your right, entirely, except for your use of certain words! Ha ha! Your misunderstanding of what ‘belief’ entails, both psychologically, and conceptually, in particular! I think excepting something is possibly true is not the same as swearing before an idol that ‘this is true’! I think one can live by hypotheses alone, one can run, jump on the freight cars of ‘possible’ truth without believing that one will go to a ‘destination’ or even believing in a ‘destination’, at all. I will give you a quote from a famous French general (I think his name was Turrene, but don’t hold me to it) who said, before going into battle:

    You tremble, carcase, you would tremble much more if you knew were I am taking you!

    Voila l’homme 

  14. Lewis Deane says:

    I am always wrong, by definition, science is always ‘wrong’, by definition. What people confuse is this ‘wrongness’, this two thirds (sometimes!) approximate ‘truth’, with never being right! It befuses me (a neologism!).

  15. Lewis Deane says:

    Now, when we diss irrationality, and this is how complex the world is, and how much we must try to involve ourselves in thinking, because we know nothing about it or aren’t brave enough to look in ourselves to know it’s there? For it isn’t ‘irrationality’ of which we speak but it’s absurd and monstrous consequences, of which we ‘know’ so much and so little. What I’m getting at is a little humbleness before these questions and a little courage!

  16. Paul in Sweden says:

    KK, Colonic irrigation, organic foods, multivitamin supplements and numerous other practices are frivolous & wasteful at the least but consider the brighter side of life. As long as the deep end of the pool is avoided those practices are benign. They demonstrate a consciousness of ‘self’, the capacity to care for oneself and a desire to better oneself(however misguided). I would venture that individuals who engage in such practices also engage in other practices that are probably very conventional, beneficial and totally unknown to outside observers.

    On my own homefront, I have totally given up attempting to stop my wife from smoking cigarettes. Colonics and cigarettes are both fairly distasteful to those that do not engage in those practices. One is benign and one has possibly fatal consequences. Count your blessings, have a happy new year, your kids get a laugh and you know someone in your family is making an effort to flush the bad things out of her life and on a greater level may actually be making progress.

  17. Lewis Deane says:

    Paul, what are you saying about my favourite ‘vice’? For cigarettes, next to alcohol, and, then,again, next to people, are ‘who’ I am. They are absurd and that is why they exist! What amuses, latterly, is the absurdity of telling people not to go to MacDonalds, as it were. Apart from being just stupid, it assumes that ‘we’, the ‘people’, have not considered, quite rationally, the risks of our ‘behaviour’. And, even if we haven’t, it is, after all, our choice!

  18. Paul in Sweden says:

    @Lewis Deane
    I believe we see eye-to-eye on the topic. 🙂

  19. Paul in Sweden says:

    GUI is not treating me well, bold was not my intention.

  20. harrywr2 says:

    The evidence is out there that this stuff is bogus.
    Stress is the biggest killer going. It does nasty stuff to the body.
    So anything that helps people ‘relax’ without doing harm will increase the effectiveness of the human auto-immune system which is quite capable of manufacturing most ‘medicines’ on the fly.
    The danger in ‘alternative’ medicine is that the body isn’t capable of creating it’s ‘own medicine’ for some illnesses.

  21. Paul in Sweden says:

    So true. ‘Malaise kills more often than mayonnaise’, hope, positive thinking in whatever form an individual chooses to employ it can keep the grim reaper away.

  22. Lazar says:

    “What’s the story here?”
    Any of these?
    A quick scan suggests chronic conditions or ‘values’. YMMV

  23. Alexander Harvey says:

    Lewis #7:
    “Actually, I will give a better definition of “˜belief’: One only “˜believes’ in that which isn’t true!”
    Our words are can be deceptive, it is so easy to talk passed each other. I perceive a gradation from knowledge through believe to faith.
    Faith has been illustrated (Thomas Browne) as belief in impossibilities, holding things to be true against strong evidence to the contrary. He was not being dismissive, Browne held the Christian faith albeit somewhat personalised, he rejoiced in this and even complained that Christianity contained to few impossibilities to adequately test his faith.
    So I think your definition of belief is akin to his notion of faith.
    I think English is very vague sometimes, we have both used the word “true”. My understanding is that English lacks a common word that narrowly indicates “factiness”. True is tied up with a notion of fidelity, of keeping faith. An unfaltering love, an arrows flight to its target being examples.
    In this view an apple’s descent is an act of faith in Newton’s Law. The apple is true to Newton. I can illustrate by saying that prior to Newtonian thought, apples simply fell, a matter of fact. Newton encriched this action, gave it a reason, a law, and gave the apple an implicit choice, it could be true to Newton or false. Newton made its action scientific.
    Feel free to consider any of that nonsense, that would be some of my point, I am offering an opportunity for missing each other due to differences in the usage of language.
    On other matters more on topic:
    The experience of science based medicine can turn on the first bad diagnosis, particularly if this implies the condition is chronic and untreatable. Bad diagnoses are not so rare that they can be ignored. This may give a link between “intelligent” patients losing faith with scientific medicine, they notice that the doctor has been wrong and if that has had consequences then its is rightful to be peeved. The notion that diagnosis is scientific, coupled with it being flat out wrong calls not just the relationship to medicine into question but to science into question.
    If I could set up an Alt Med practice I might do well to hover up all the misdiagnosed and simply wait for them to cure themselves of conditions that they never had.
    I have known people lose faith in their religious mentors and thier medical ones. The reaction can be stark and the result hostile. I have witnessed the aftermath of a handful of quite shocking medical opinions, in one case a person diagnosed with something the doctor may have considered unremarkable but was potentially life changing due to its implications, it was also completely preposterous, to the degree that I had to resist laughing, while I got on with the process of putting a life back together.
    I must wonder how commonly people turn to Alt Med, due to a breakdown in the doctor patient relationship. How precisely does one tell a doctor that they have been both negligent and incompetent, in a constructive way? When the patient, with the advantage of superior self knowledge, better applies science in their own interest, confidence in medical practioners suffers. This really shouldn’t happen but it does.
    I do not know whether this amounts to additional harm, misplaced confidence in doctors probably does much good, a little faith healing is a benefit.

  24. Lewis Deane says:

    ‘These truths we hold self evident…’ The Constitution was wrong, on this point, but it was the only language they could use. How does one set up a ‘faith’, how does one find a nation? Not by ‘words’ alone, by definition but words do mean something. Precision of terms is what I’m looking for. Let us say, the term ‘belief’ is obsolete in a way that the Constitution can’t be. After, we don’t believe in anything!

  25. Lewis Deane says:

    Keith, you’ve excised my best comment, probably because you thought it to ‘personal’. Well, jump up and dance, aren’t these questions ‘personal’? I wanted to bring in what was ‘personal’ only because it might ‘illustrate’ the complexity of the issues considered. Please put it back, or, if not, because I rather liked it, email me a copy. I ask you as graciously as I can. Your humble servant.

  26. Lewis Deane says:

    #19, Paul,

    It is interesting, is it not, how we indulge in this ‘risk’? In the sense in which, to keep to Keiths point, that only the ‘rich’ could indulge the quacks of ‘alternate’ ‘medicine’? People often talk about British ‘eccentricity’ but, as everyone knows, one has to have a certain income before one qualifies! And there are others who say, at the moment one dies, one will ‘pray’ to a God one never believed in. Such cowardice I don’t wish on my worst enemies. But the real irony, of course, is that however ‘alternative’ one is, it isn’t God one calls but a real and actual Doctor. A GP. Wow. Now that frightens me, that people might be stubborn towards the very inch of death and then say, I was wrong, I knew I was wrong from the beginning. Let us begin by being right, in the odd and lopsided way in which humans are right! Or wrong. 

  27. Keith Kloor says:

    Lewis, none of your comments are being held up, nor do I see any accidentally snared in spam.

  28. Jarmo says:

    A friend of mine, a nurse, told me about a guy who turned up at ER with a problem: He had inserted a bicycle pump up his ass and could not get it out. They did not ask him about his motivations.

    Compared to that, colonic irrigation sounds quite reasonable. If people want to believe quacks and medicine men, fine. It’s their life. Or the end of it.   


  29. Lewis Deane says:

    Maybe I was dreaming, Keith. Often, that is my way. To dream rather than think. Which is, after all, what your questions were about. I’ve just been listening to Bob Dylan of the nineties and was thinking how absurd but inevitable it would be that ‘time’ will take these people from us. I often wonder, that is to say, whether Bob is a ‘hippy’, whether, wherever he exists, he might indulge the absurdities, as referenced. I hope not. Isn’t it strange, our Western, ‘indulgent’ world, that its ‘medical’ ‘thought’ takes so much of our thoughts? ‘Who’ we’ve become is strange!

  30. Lewis Deane says:

    One should think about other things, of course, there are worse things, that is to say, than the  ‘irrationallities’ of ‘colonic’ ‘irrigation’ (!) etc. I’m watching a BBC program called ‘A State Of Mind’ about how two young girls train for the ‘Mass Games’ in North Korea. How solace can find its smile in the strangest corners! How much children’s smiles look the same! One can’t stop seeing, can one, Keith, one can’t stop feeling, can one? And yet on our earth, our precious earth, these things are real and happening. Now, what was that about ‘alternative medicine’?

  31. Mary says:

    I spend a lot of time combatting quackery. Some of it is trivial and harmless. But there are cases of people dying from these things. And I think adults are allowed to do anything they want with their own health care spending–but mistreating children’s illnesses is a real problem. Some die.
    You can’t move the tru-beleevers. Period. They will move the goalposts every time you offer them data, evidence, logic, etc. So when I realize I’m dealing with one of them, I try to get them to tell me how they make decisions. I really like to understand what their process is. Some of them realize they have no foundation, which is kind of an important awareness. And sometimes you don’t have to say any more after that.
    Another thing I like to ask is who would they trust to give them medications and/or advice? Internet shills? Really? I had a big debate with an anti-vaxxer at a CDC meeting once. To her credit, when I asked her from what source she’d need to hear evidence that vaccines are safe and valuable, she admitted she didn’t know. And I think that surprised her. She realized she was a denier rather than just a skeptic at that point. 
    But you aren’t alone. We all have dinner parties and family events like this. Tim Minchin even immortalized that in Storm (worth watching, trust me–I’m a scientist….):

  32. Lazar says:

    Tim Minchin’s Storm +1
    “Isn’t this enough?”
    Love it 🙂

  33. Mary says:

    Oh, and on the responsibility for this–this BMJ piece gets at it:
    The BBC report they reference was good too.
    And I have a giant crush on Brian Cox for this:
    “Cox later gave the BBC a statement (which it declined to issue) saying, “I apologise to the astrology community for not making myself clear. I should have said that this new age drivel is undermining the very fabric of our civilisation.” “

  34. Lewis Deane says:

    I caught someone’s smile and, like the self-conscious,Imitative fool I am, I couldn’t help smiling, to.A girl, you understand, a dancer in North KoreaWhose only purpose and desire was and is to danceBefore the Great Leader. How solace might smileIn the strangest corner. How children are beautifulIn any ‘world’. How broken we all are. How finished.

  35. Eli Rabett says:

    Scientific medicine is a very recent thing.  Till ~ 1900 you were better off doing nothing on average than going to see a physician.  Effective drugs before ~1960 were few and far between.   Vaccines besides small pox were not known before ~ 1950 and as far as evaluation of treatments there was no agreed statistical standard.
    That is not so long ago.

  36. Alexander Harvey says:

    For any hoping for a turn around regarding climate, I suspect that things will seem to get a lot worse before they ever gets better. It will get worse as it gets more professional, all things considered there has been very little polish applied to the balancing views on climate change. I can only think of two documentaries and one of those is 20 years old and as I recall it was the better one.
    Misdirection is relatively easily done, one takes a whole lot of things the audience know to be true and weave them plus a few tidbits into more or less what is required.
    Orson Welles’ “F for Fake” is a wonderful demonstration of the art of misdirection. Everything is true until the point where everything is false, best of all he tells you that this will happen to camera, in another misdirection, so I missed the point where it flipped.
    There is a feature length AIDS documentary “House of Numbers” with an all-star cast of experts (e.g. Gallo). I found it quite difficult to spot the point where it leapt from what I thought I knew well, to where I realised I had ceased to believe any of it. I thought it was brilliantly done and highly plausible my only issue being my failure to believe half of it. I wonder about the implications for my state of knowledge had I believed all of it.
    I used to know a fairly vocal AIDS dissident, I do know what some of it is about and there is a much smaller story about things that the UN side didn’t get right particularly in Africa. But it is just that a smaller story, some of it is covered in the above video, and it will check out, much of the video may check out, that is my problem with it.
    In general, there exists cheaply available technology which can enable directors to put together professionally made material with the potency of WMD where the D does not just stand for deception.
    Lancet reviewed the documentary (how often do they do film reviews?):
    “It is a threadbare documentary that claims there is no connection between HIV and AIDS. It arrives at this conclusion through a toxic combination of misrepresentation and sophistry. At best, it is a misguided and misbegotten film; at worst, it is downright malevolent.”
    I don’t quite get the “threadbare” bit, that is my point, I thought it covered the ground and got all the right people to do their bit to camera, if it had been threadbare it wouldn’t have bothered me.

  37. Dean says:

    There are also anecdotal experiences. Some decades ago I was getting a lot of warts. I took the homeopathic remedy for warts and they were gone within a couple of months. That was 30 years ago and I haven’t had one since, and I know others with similar experiences. I haven’t used any homeopathic stuff in many years but that remedy for warts cost me all of $5 and of course had no chance of causing problems like some herbs can. Looking back, of course it could have been something other than the remedy, but experiences like that count for most people more than some test that they don’t understand, particularly since these days people are really down on trusting science.
    Despite considering myself a big supporter of homeopathy back then, I never would ave used it instead of conventional treatments for something critical for which there was a proven treatment. And since they are supposedly harmless and really cheap, there was really no possibility for harm.
    There are many treatments in conventional medicine that are either not proven using double blind tests yet, or for which the reason they are effective is not known. The human body is incredibly complex and we have much to learn about it yet.
    I’m aware that many people avoid effective proven treatments and are taken in by hucksters to great harm, and there are many reasons people use these things. But broad brush statements against all alternatives are a bit over the top.

  38. EdG says:

    I suspect there are even more people who believe praying will heal them. Probably for similar reasons.

    But I would agree with Dean (#36) that “broad brush statements against all alternatives are a bit over the top.”

    I would go further and say they are so far over the top as to be inherently false. Many examples of ‘natural medicines’ which do work, which is why so many things – like good old aspirin – were originally derived from them.

    Similarly, it is false to state that ALL ‘science based’ medicines DO work.

    And in some cases, these effects depend on the individual taking them, as we are all different.

    That said, the funny scene Keith paints of his belching relatives does remind me of some people I do know who are true believers in all the ‘natural’ healing, though they tend to belch more from the other end. Tis a very good sign, apparently.

  39. Dean says:

    Keith – Since you are so big on cases where people who often disagree are in agreement on something, this case fits since EdG and I are in substantial agreement here.
    I think we need to avoid some hard dichotomy about conventional vs alternative treatments. There are lots of alternatives that are dangerous or encourage people to avoid proven effective treatments. But there are also alternatives that are known to be effective, and others that at the very least are not harmful.
    On the other side, conventional medicine taken as a whole is not always scientific. The resistance to treatment effectiveness measures is one case in point. Taken on the whole, conventional medicine is quasi scientific and various treatments run the gamut as to how science-based they are.
    Furthermore, since there are still many mysteries about how our bodies function, the placebo effect being hardly the least of these mysteries, being science-based is no guarantee of accuracy. I could go on about this quite a bit. I haven’t had the flu in 15 years at least and get a real cold maybe every third year. But I wasn’t like that at all in my youth – I got sick a lot.
    It changed rather suddenly in conjunction with some lifestyle choices, and these include some choices that science often derides. So while I understand that my experience is anecdotal, I’m hardly going to ignore it because science has yet to prove it, and go back to living like I did when I got two colds and the flu every year, because science can’t prove that the changes I made are effective.

  40. DeNihilist says:

    had a Reki session once. amazing that the woman found every injury that I had sustained to that point, and as she ran her hands by the spots, i could feel the heat from her palms.

    recently had a horrid case of back spasms. tried robaxicet, etc. finally went to an accupuncturist. walked away from the bed with no spasms for over a year.

    would i go alt if i had the cancer that job’s had? No F’ing way!   


  41. Keith Kloor says:

    @38, 39, 40,

    Points taken. Agree about the broad brush criticism. I can see value in things like acupuncture, massage, meditation, and such on case by case basis. But the danger is when alt med devotees go all in. See, for example, my link to the WaPo story about the swine flu homeopathic remedies.

  42. DeNihilist says:


    There are many of our recognized meds that have a natural beginning, aspirin, pine needle soup for Champdelain and crew, even Feverfew. Maybe this could be a reason for such trust in alt-med by reasonable people?      

  43. Keith Kloor says:

    Maybe one of them, for people that are like a 100 years old. But for the generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, I think it’s also the idea that natural = harmony with the world, or some crap like that. For many others, it’s about being able to google your very own “facts” and have them reinforce your bugaboos about western medicine. Plenty of other reasons, as well…

  44. Steve E says:


    Being able to self prescribe and self medicate has a lot to do with belief and more importantly behaviour when it comes to health remedy.

    What I can’t understand is the need to vilify specific food, drugs, treatments, etc while putting others on a pedestal. Remember oat bran? It was thought to prevent cancer and started appearing as an additive in everything. What about fibre? Fibre has almost zero nutritional value yet is mentioned as our dietary saviour. In reality, it’s up there with daily colonics.

    Meanwhile, if you feed your kid a happy meal, it’s like a death sentence.

    Someone in this thread asked how does one identify this type of thinker (I paraphrase). In my experience, I don’t think you can. They are as likely to be left wing as right, religious as non-believer, upper income as lower etc. I sat through a similar discussion two nights ago as you describe here Keith.

    Perhaps this “craziness” is the one thing that pulls us all together 😉

    Man, we’re screwed! 

  45. huxley says:

    Don’t forget the craziness of conventional medicine.

    Fifty years ago MDs were handing out amphetamines and barbiturates like jujubes and quite a lot of folks would have been far better off if they had gone for homeopathic remedies and colonics. I’m sure that mistake damaged far more people than has.

    My mother did both. Her homeopath turned out to be J.D. Salinger’s favorite homeopath, Dr. Ruth Rogers, who was horrified to hear of all the prescription drugs my mother was taking, including amphetamines and barbiturates.

    Dr. Roger tried to persuade my mother to get off the drugs and take some nice sensible tincture of nux vomica. I’m not saying the nux vomica would have worked, but the prescription drugs destroyed my mother’s life.

    Thank you very much, conventional medicine.

  46. Louise says:

    Alternative Medecine that works is actually called Medecine.

  47. Mary says:

    Yeah, nux vomica (or strychnine as others might recognize it) might be a good solution for one’s troubled mother. Or she might have turned to alcohol to self medicate.
    Or the fact that after a couple of decades of exposure you might be immune to many of the circulating viruses as an explanation for your robust good health today could be considered.
    You can make up answers that suit your world view, rather than relying on understanding the underlying issues. It does give one a sense of control–whether it’s true or not.
    But where this sort of behavior intersects policy we have broad problems.
    I love The Infinite Monkey Cage. They bring science into a discussion in a light banter manner. But they had a great show recently on where these beliefs collide with media and policy. Listen to the podcast A Balanced Programme on Balance.

    I wish that US science leaders were engaging in this manner like Paul Nurse does. Alas.

  48. mondo says:

    Some weeks ago, I had an experience of heart palpitations that was a bit odd.  My beloved insisted that I go see a doctor (I very seldom do, being generally in robust good health) who works in the area between conventional allopathic medicine and alternative approaches, basing his recommendations on research. 
    My blood pressure was a bit high and we agreed that the smart thing to do was to find out if there was an issue.  I did a stress ECG and blood tests, and then discussed the results with the doctor.  We agreed that I should lose some weight, and use raw garlic to improve my cardiovascular health (use google to see the research) rather than statins (also look at the research). 
    My point is that my research, with the advice of a practitioner I respect, has led me to prefer an “alternative” approach.  That approach seems to be working fine.  My systolic BP is now 25 points below what it was, and my diastolic BP is 30 points below.  Something seems to be working. 

  49. Eric Adler says:

    Your relative has held on to the idea that an unclean colon is the source of her problem, despite the fact that a colon cleanser doesn’t seem to be working.  It is hard to displace a theory that a person has adopted, even if it appears it is not working, unless an alternative theory and treatment is presented.

  50. huxley says:

    Yeah, nux vomica (or strychnine as others might recognize it) might be a good solution for one’s troubled mother.

    Mary @47: Perhaps my irony misled you. I don’t believe in homeopathy except as a placebo.

    My point was that the MD actively harmed my mother with amphetamines and barbiturates, while the homeopath got it right that my mother needed to get off those drugs.

    One answer to Keith’s question of how to explain believers is that most of us know cases where conventional medicine failed, sometimes horribly, and alternative medicine succeeded or seemed to succeed.

  51. huxley says:

    The problem with Keith’s initial framing (conventional medicine rational and effective, alternative medicine irrational and ineffective) is the fallacy of the excluded middle.

    Not all conventional medicine is right and not all alternative medicine is wrong and there are a whole lot of shades of gray in between.

  52. huxley says:

    Another answer to Keith’s question is that many believers don’t feel they have much choice. Conventional medicine has either failed for them or offers no solutions. They don’t want to give up hope so they look elsewhere, i.e. alternative medicine.

    I have a friend who at the age of 30 developed PKD, an incurable genetic kidney disease, which had killed her father and uncle by the time they were 35. She was terrified.

    So she sought help from an Israeli healer, Meir Schneider, who himself had been declared by doctors “permanently blind” but through thousands and thousands of hours of working with the discredited Bates Method and some techniques he developed himself, Schneider improved his vision to 20/60 and eventually obtained an unrestricted driver’s license.

    My friend worked with Schneider diligently and even became a teacher of his self-healing method. She is now 65. She still has the kidney disease but otherwise she is healthy, happy and productive.

    Of course, this doesn’t prove the validity of Schneider’s method. But if nothing else it relieved my friend’s terror, helped her to relax, and gave her some sense of control. She has outlived her father and uncle by thirty years and counting.

    When people hear stories like my friend’s they are more prone to believe in alternative medicine.

  53. Anteros says:

    Huxley –
    Well said. I congratulate you on finding a way to explain why many people believe in (or use) alternative medicine, without making the assertion that they are all deluded – or that you personally believe heaps of things that are patently untrue.
    I think we miss-represent western medical science when we view it as ‘true’. And we equally miss-represent alternative paradigms as totally ‘phony’. I say that, and don’t give up any of my scepticism of homeopathy or many other strange ideas.
    TCM is easy to dismiss from a western medics standpoint because it is simply incommensurable with conventional medicine – it uses concepts that don’t make any sense to us. We can make the effort, though – surely the idea that you go to your doctor to stay well, rather than to end sickness is reasonably comprehensible. That underpins TCM thinking and also makes sense in environments where anyone not in the best of health has a very poor life expectancy.
    An offshoot of this fundamental view of what medicine is about is that it is the patient that is treated, not the symptoms. Closed minded westerners use the fact that two people with the same symptoms might be given different prescriptions by Chinese doctors as evidence that after 3000 of development, Chinese medicine is somehow a ‘sham’. Scientists also have the misguided idea that they can analyse the contents of a Chinese remedy and isolate the ‘active ingredient’, extract it, and test it for efficacy against a particular symptom. Wrong paradigm, methinks.
    I think you’re right to mention the prevalence of iatrogenic illnesses too – western medicine has an unenviable record of killing off its patients. Hence the necessity of reminding itself of ‘First, do no harm’.
    As with many things, it is much easier to dismiss something in its entirety than accept a messy, grey non-dichotomy. We see that even more prevalently in the climate ‘debate’, but at least with alternative medicine, most patient’s beliefs and choices only affect themselves.

  54. Edim says:

    Huxley got it.
    Placebo (and Nocebo) effects can’t be overestimated. Very powerfull.
    Happy New Year!

  55. huxley says:

    Anteros: Thanks. We certainly do see the problems with black-white formulations in the climate debate.

    Another aspect to all this is that the human body is extraordinarily complex and even Western medicine acknowledges the feedback between the mind and the body, making the business of healing even trickier.

    Some years ago I read a study that demonstrated certain knee surgeries were no better than placebo.

  56. EdG says:

    I have been advised that the cure for my current New Years Eve ailment is the immediate application of more beer.

    Not sure whether the science behind this medicine is sound but in past experiments it did seem to make me feel better.

  57. #54: Placebo (and Nocebo) effects can’t be overestimated. Very powerfull.
    Define ‘powerful’.  They certainly *CAN* be overestimated.  Placebos aren’t going to cure cancer.  And the best meta-analyses of the placebo literature to date still find no significant effect.  See the recent article in the New Yorker for more.
    (you’ll have to pay if you don’t subscribe, sorry)

  58. huxley says:

    As much as I respect the placebo effect, I wouldn’t want to write off everything effective in alternative medicine to the placebo.

    Meir Schneider’s recovery from blindness is astonishing and suggests larger possibilities for improving eyesight than are currently acknowledged.

    Then there are spontaneous remissions in which people recover from serious diseases or conditions for no known medical reasons. These are, of course, rare.

    But the point remains that there is much that conventional medicine cannot account for, so it is premature to dismiss out of hand all forms of healing outside conventional medicine.

  59. Lewis Deane says:

    Keith, I left this conversation just when it was getting interesting but, probably, for ‘good reason’ ie it is difficult to continue as such when your more than ‘half tanked’ (which, as you’ve probably guessed, is normal for me – What? At least I’m honest!). But just to show I’m not completely crazy: notice, near the beginning, that every time the venerable Nullus refers to a comment, he’s a number too much. There was an inadvertent elision there that you might want to think on!? I’m only saying!

  60. Lewis Deane says:

    Last comment: I’m watching another dystopian vision of the ‘future’ – why are we so afraid of this ‘future’? Perhaps the same reason we ‘indulge’ in the absurdities you point to? Shall I name it: a dread of growing up! We can’t grow up.

  61. Lewis Deane says:

    But I can’t sleepI’m full of bile and hatredAnd disgustBut I can’t sleepI’m full of hope, of wonder,Of desire
    But I can’t sleep
    The lightning struck me
    I was about to speak
    But I can’t sleep
    I dreamed my mother 
    Came to me
    She said ‘No, no, no.’
    But I can’t sleep
    Secretly I smile, you know, 
    At the corner of my mouth, 
    A crooked smile
    But I can’t sleep
    So I dream, openly,
    In the blazing day,
    In the fire of the sun
    But I can’t sleep
    Merely to begin
    Is enough
    And more than enough
    But I can’t sleep
    And to end,
    A joke
    For others
    But I can’t sleep.

  62. Anja says:

    perhaps your relative initially did go to her doctor, who examined her and could not pinpoint a cause. perhaps a few tests were done and nothing conclusive came from them. and yet the symptoms continued, the discomfort remained. in such instances, doctors will often become almost irritated with the patient – “there’s nothing to be done about it, go home and learn to live with it”.
    but it’s human nature to try and find solutions to problems. and so, perhaps your relative fired up google and found many others in similar straits and who found a solution. many solutions. some of these solutions may even lead to her feeling better (dietary changes, for instance).
    in any case, she is taken seriously in that community of peers and by the various healers (some legitimate, some not so). nobody goes “shoo, shoo, off with ye!” at her. she has a group of peers, supporting her, cheering her on. she has a healer who takes time and listens to her. everyone is committed to the search for the ultimate solution and there’s always another one on the horizon. probably, those two things contribute much to her feeling of wellbeing and may even lead to symptoms lessening or at least bothering her less.
    it’s possible that it happened more or less like that. perhaps.

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