In an era of information overload, we are bombarded with unsubstantiated, sometimes contradictory claims, many of them health-related. There seem to be a lot of health options to sort through and health is only one aspect of our hectic lives.
Therefore, filtering through the quackery can be daunting. Sources like the Skeptic’s Dictionary, the Center for Inquiry, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry do a good job of staying on top of dubious claims, but no one can keep track of them all. So here’s how to arm yourself with the ability to detect bogus cures and treatments masquerading as medicine.
First, it helps to understand what medicine is. It is the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease, as well as the science that deals with maintaining health. Medicine is backed by the metadata of peer-reviewed, published double blind studies using the Scientific Method.
Beware the prefixes. There is no alternative medicine, integrative medicine, complementary medicine, supplemental medicine, eastern medicine, or functional medicine. There is just medicine, the stuff proven to prevent or treat illness, injury, or disease. The others are not forms of medicine, but rather marketing terms.
Identifying the nonsense has gotten much more challenging over the last decade. For quackery is no longer confined to pop-up ads, hot tips from a cousin’s friend, and the neighborhood Holistic Health Hut. It has infiltrated mainstream hospitals and medical schools, including some of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
I looked into this trend after learning a local hospital was offering Reiki, and the problem is much worse than I had realized. My greatest fear is that craoniosacral therapists and Reiki practitioners will move from their relatively segregated positions in hospital integrative care wings, and into ambulances and emergency rooms.
I am profoundly disappointed by hospitals and medical schools lowering their standards, rather than insisting that proponents of Gerson Therapy, magnet therapy, and reflexology raise theirs. But I have faced the harsh reality that since hospitals and medical schools are businesses, profits come before patients.
Since hospitals and medical schools are now part of the problem, the solution is up to you and your friendly blogger. Here are some signs to look for that something is not medicine. First, a couple of easy-to-remember ones: If it references “energy” or “quantum,” it’s best avoided. And “quantum energy,” oh my.
Two more huge clues are claiming that patients get the best of all worlds, and are treated as a whole person. For instance, we have this quackery from Stanford Health Care: “Integrative Medicine combines the best of alternative and complementary treatments with mainstream modern medicine and psychology to provide care for the whole person: mind and body.”
This glosses over the lack of double blind studies or use of the Scientific Method in the alternative world. As to “whole person claim,” mainstream medicine does more than treat the disease, though that is properly the primary focus. The patient’s genetics, heredity, lifestyle, and habits are also figured into a treatment plan. In limited instances, “integrative medicine” can be legitimate, as long as it is clearly delineated what is treating what. For instance, chemotherapy could be used to treat cancer, while meditation could be used to deal with the stress of having the disease. Linguistically-speaking, this could be called integrative care.
One of the most frequent pseudomedicine ploys is the emphasis on testimonials. This is successful because persons have a more emotional connection to someone explaining their illness and relief than they have to a study’s abstract. On the Duke Integrative Medicine website, we have these praises from anonymous sources:
“The word THANKS does not even begin to express how I feel.”
“I was meant to come here. You have experiences in life that can alter your being, and that’s happened to me here.”
“I felt so relaxed and so at peace just knowing I had done something good for my body and good for my soul and good for my mind.”
“It is a place where mind, body and soul come together to be fed and nourished in perfect harmony in a sanctuary-like environment.”
“A really incredible experience. I am motivated to make changes.”
“I think there will be more joy in my life.”
These sound like people leaving a Tony Robbins seminar, not persons receiving medical care. The dozen testimonials on this site do not equate to one morsel of science-based evidence. Indeed, there is a conspicuous lack of double blind studies referenced on the site. There is just one, and it suggested integrative therapy had shown some ability to relieve chronic pain. Of course, this was because real medicine was used along with counterfeit methods. The mainstream chronic pain treatment could have been augmented with unicycle riding and gotten the same results.
Another frequent pseudomedicine claim is the war on toxins. A related one is touting the ability to help the body do something or other. The liver will take care of your toxins and if your body does something naturally, it doesn’t need any help.
One of the greater concentrations of quackery red flags comes from Shane Ellison, who dubs himself the “People’s Chemist.” We’ll let him serve as a handy microcosm for pseudomedical notions.
First, he trots out the toxin and body-healing assistance lines. Whatever your body was doing, it will continue to do so whether you pop this guy’s pills or not.
He also makes up terms like “nutrient logic” and “hormone intelligence.” On this one, the best advice I can give is to immerse yourself in the skeptic and medicine movements. I recognize at first glance when nonsense notions are passed off as medicine, an ability I lacked five years ago.
Ellison then throws in the usual testimonials, all leading up to his books or bottles for sell, another red flag. Along the way, he informs us, “My laboratory has integrated the latest advances in chemistry and biology to create natural products that confer positive, measurable results.” If it was created in a laboratory, it is not natural. That’s fine, I’ve addressed the appeal to nature fallacy before. But this lack of understanding calls his medical credentials into question. And his “positive, measurable results” are undefined and not submitted for peer review. Taking claims straight to potential consumers instead of peer review is the most vermillion of the red flags.
Another sign is the conspiracy angle, such as “doctors don’t want you to know,” or “What pharmaceutical companies hate.” Doctors are not cut from a monolithic swath, hunched over in their white coats to keep secret knowledge amongst their shadowy selves. Yet in one of his blog posts, Ellison interviews an anonymous school nurse who tells him, presumably in excited whispers, “There’s an ulterior motive behind the vaccine movement that is money-driven and evil.”
Also, Ellison describes pharmaceutical companies as being involved in a “plot designed to sabotage health and wealth while causing untold ecological damage.” There’s still more: “Big Pharma manipulates studies using checkbook science. This allows them to pay for the design and interpretation of clinical trials. There is also medical ghostwriting, the slimy practice of hiring PhD’s to crank out drug reports that hype benefits.” Yet Ellison is selling natural cures that promise to stop strokes, heart attacks, and diabetes. In other words, he’s cranking out drug reports that hype benefits.
Another red flag is trying to make the patient feel special. Johns Hopkins Internal Medicine lauds its “individualized approach,” while the tricky blue devils at Duke Integrative Medicine trumpet that patients “experience a new approach to medical care that brings you and your provider together in a dynamic partnership dedicated to optimizing YOUR health and healing. Our approach focuses on all of who you are, recognizing that the subtle interactions of mind, body, spirit and community have a direct impact on your vitality and well-being.
Not be outdone, Yale says, “Integrative Medicine is the practice of medicine that reaffirms the importance of the relationship between practitioner and patient and focuses on the whole person.”
Keeping with Yale, the site also tell us, “Through open-minded exploration and rigorous scientific inquiry, we aim to improve awareness and access to the best in evidence-based, comprehensive medical care available worldwide, with the goal of optimizing health and healing.
Here, open-minded means just making up stuff and seeing if anything works. That’s not a strawman, either. Yale physician David Katz praised the lack of evidence required, saying, “With internal medicine, once I’ve tried everything the textbooks tell me, I’m done. But with integrative medicine, I always have something to try. I never run out of options.” Per the Yale site, these options include herbalism, acupuncture, Reiki, and thinking the tongue will reveal diseases in other parts of the body. These methods are used without research, clinical trials, peer review, or attempts to replicate and falsify.
Continuing the Ivy League capitulation to made-up medicine, we get this from Harvard: “Excellent care seeks to understand how the ailment affects a patient’s overall physical and mental well-being. Excellent care considers the interconnected systems of the body and mind. Excellent care enhances patients’ health by considering all the tools at our disposal, those from the technologically advanced hemisphere of Western medicine, as well as from the traditionally based hemisphere of Eastern medicine. Excellent care acknowledges the whole patient and diverse forms of treatment.”
This meandering description references no science, breakthrough, research, testing, or proof of efficiency yet is being peddled as medicine by Harvard. With standards this loose, it’s no wonder Harvard endorses chiropractic, even though its central tenet, vitalism, completely contradicts the Germ Theory that modern medicine is based on. Harvard is also fond of acupuncture, part of the university’s appeal to ancient wisdom. But a treatment’s validity is based on its efficacy, not its antiquity. The idea that demons cause illness is much older than Germ Theory, but that doesn’t make it much better.
Harvard even goes so far as to embrace craniosacral therapy. This is when a person, using no instruments or way to measure what they are doing, gives a gentle massage to the cranium and sacrum of a patient to cure any ailment. Yes, Harvard is championing the idea that tuberculosis could be cured by some guy giving a neck and scalp massage. I don’t think Harvard will get rid of tuberculosis this way, but they are doing a good job of eliminating what we know about anatomy and physiology.
These practices won’t make anybody healthy, but their use by our top medical facilities makes me sick.