In the USA up to 4 in ten adults use 'some form' of alternative therapy1. In Britain there are about 150 000 alternative therapists, and the public spend about £4.5 billion on them (as of year 2009)2. In nearly all practices, they work due to the psychology surrounding 'treatment' (the placebo effect and statistical regression) rather than the actual result of the treatment. This is why drugs companies spend more on branding and advertising than they do on research and development3. Nearly all alternative therapies are psychological trickery rather than real medicine4. All such practices are called quackery by skeptics. The danger is that many people seek help from 'alternative' providers before they seek proper medical help, which can result in delayed treatment and in the worst cases, death from ailments that are otherwise perfectly curable if only the sufferer had gone to a normal doctor sooner1. "Some homeopathic remedies may contain substances that are not safe, or that interfere with the action of other medicines" and a real doctor should be consulted before using alternative therapies5 (including those that say they are 'natural' - so are many poisons). This page introduces some quack therapies and explores why people think such therapies work.
“The counter-culture [of the 1960s and 1970s] saw a flowering of psychotherapies that bordered on the religious. Some became very popular. Werner Erhard's Erhard Seminar Training or est (always with lower-case letters) claims to have trained over 20,000 people in the first three years of its life. There were also Arica, Bioenergetics, Silva Mind Control, Insight, Scientology, The Farm, Kerista, Primal Therapy, Co-Counselling, Rebirthing, and many many more. All were in the business of improving the self, but they differed from conventional therapy. [...] The claims made are so extravagant that one has to believe in some sort of supernatural [effect] to find them plausible, even if it is merely the supernatural nature of the human self.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996)6
Such forms of psychotherapy have been joined by a wide range of purportedly biological alternative therapies, which claim to treat pretty much every ailment going, ranging in severity from colds to cancers. But none of them work. Although people have thought these practices have done something good, investigators have found that indirect psychological effects were the real benefactor. Many scientific studies have been carried out, and where psychological effects have been eliminated, results are firmly negative. Dr Edzard Ernst has conducted one of the best investigations, and summarizes by saying that "the actual evidence for these treatments, however, is almost entirely negative" (2007). "In 2005 the Lancet, a leading medical journal, analysed the evidence and declared the end of homeopathy" and a paper leaked from Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council "describes homeopathy as unethical and baseless"1.
Other treatments such as acupuncture can work, but not in the mystical, spiritual or magical way that traditional practitioners believe - i.e., "sham" or "fake" acupuncture is as good as "real" acupuncture as practised by alternative-medicine fans.
Mostly, these practices are not penalized by law simply for not working. The closest thing to a watchdog is the newly formed official Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC to some, 'Ofquack' to others) but "unlike the bodies that oversee doctors and nurses, the CNHC takes no interest in whether its practitioners' efforts actually work"2. This is because they know that when they test alternative medicines, they find that the do not work other than by psychological trickery.
In 2004 Steve Jobs had surgery to have a cancerous tumour from his pancreas removed, followed by a liver transplant in 2009 to help slow the deadly tumour. Steve Jobs had an islet cell neuroendocrine tumour, which gives better than a 50% chance of being cured if treated in time. Unfortunately Steve Jobs was misled by various forms of alternative therapies. He tried acupuncture, dietary changes, various herbal remedies and "a few other treatments he found in the Internet or by consulting people [...] including a psychic. [Only] after such 'alternative' therapies failed to magically effect a cure, Jobs finally capitulated to the pleadings of physicians and family" and followed mainstream medical advice7. Specially catered chemotherapy immediately worked well but the time that Jobs wasted on alternative therapies 'may have ultimately proven far more costly'. The moral of this story is that even intelligent people can be misled by the claims of alternative medicine, to the cost of their own lives.
Everyone who diagnoses or aids people with illness should be qualified in human biology and medicine. This is because the Human body is massively complicated, where symptoms are often not straight forward. There are no simple, general rules guiding us as to what the true causes of bodily malaise are.
But the popularity of alternative therapies has meant that this largely unregulated industry employs a great many inexperienced, under-qualified and wrongly qualified practitioners8. One scientist, working for a skin care center, warns us that...
“... therapists that train in only one area on a short course, in my opinion, aren't well trained enough. They have little or no experience with working on 'real' clients and their knowledge of anatomy and physiology is seriously lacking and in some cases, non existent! In my opinion therapists who become self employed immediately after a short course can be a danger to clients. Because they have no experience.”
Suzie Bell, Portugal News (2008)9
Some alternative qualifications are gained after a rapid 3-day course, which is clearly inadequate but still grants the student a good-looking certificate to hang confidently on their wall to impress patients with. Due to demand, some of these courses are only 1 day long. Put it another day: If you went to your doctor with a complaint and he revealed that he had had only one day's formal study, would you trust him? Given the sketchy evidence for complementary medicine in general, you should be doubly distrustful of non-mainstream medical practices, even those who claim to be respectable.
In addition, Susie Bell points out, many beauty therapists are self-employed so have no backing nor methods for checking up on the products and methods they use. Given the quantity of well-funded pseudo-science present in the cosmetics industry, inexperience and naivety well tend to bolster confusion about what works and what is worthwhile.
The Placebo Effect is a positive effect on an illness or medical condition, or on a health-related outcome, that results from suggestion and expectation10. This subtle psychological effect occurs whether or not the underlying treatment actually works and it is strong enough to continually distort medical studies into the effectiveness of health products and can make products seems effective when they are not - it can even do the same for surgical practices.11,12. Such unexpected effects have been studied in greater and greater detail by medical researchers, and it has emerged that placebo effects come in various forms13. The placebo effect is particularly significant in areas such as pain relief and stress, and is therefore best at overcoming aches and pains, headaches, stress-related conditions including recovery from stomach ulcers10 and skin rashes. Most complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) and alternative therapies work through indirect psychological effects, and by the turn of 20th century many New Age related remedies and practices were based on cures by suggestion14. The placebo effect is the reason why these remedies appear to work for so many people, when in reality they don't have any medical effect12,15,16,17,18,19,20 and its effects can often support erroneous ideas as to how disease works, and how healing works.
How does it work? (1) There is a link between mood and mental states of mind, and between mood and our immune system, meaning, that our overall impressions of a treatment can affect our outlook, which can boost our immune system21,22,23. (2) When it comes to pain, the prefrontal cortex of the brain can suppress pain messages from the insula24 and other places, meaning that if we prime ourselves to feel less pain (such as when expecting a pill to work) then it really does dull pain. Many experiments have confirmed the ability of people to mentally control pain. (3) Classical conditioning means that many elements of merely receiving a treatment cause our brain to release neurotransmitters and other learned responses in anticipation of feeling better, which improves how we feel11,25. (4) The Hawthorne Effect - people tend to live healthier and perform better simply because they are being studied15,25. (5) Receiving treatment can boost confidence and reduce stress, both of which can improve healing and feelings of wellbeing11,25,26. Finally, (6) It works best when delivered by a confident doctor who also believes the placebo will work27.
For more, see:
The above paragraphs are the summary to my page on the placebo effect. For the full page, which has a section on how the placebo effect accidentally supports sham procedures and fake medicine, click here: The Placebo Effect and the Positive Power of the Mind on Health.
The regression fallacy occurs when people extract too much meaning from chance events under specific circumstances. Disease and fortune come and go: because of the law of regression when things are at their worst they are likely to simply get better on their own no matter what we do. But when things are bad, some will "try" all manner of superstitious, meaningless and misguided practices - including all kinds of alternative therapies28. Social psychologist David Myers agrees: "when things reach a low point... whatever we try - going to a psychotherapist, starting a new diet-exercise plan, reading a self-help book - is more likely to be followed by improvement than by further deterioration"29. Because we rarely employ controls and statistical analysis in our personal lives, it seems that any attempted solution, from the zany to the insane, has actually worked. This is the cause of untold numbers of superstitions, magical practices, religious beliefs and pseudoscience, and can sometimes lead large numbers of people astray, especially when stories and anecdotes are published by the press.30,31,32,33,34
This is why many cults, religions and pseudo-therapeutic fads prey on the weak, depressed, down-and-outs and those who have recently experienced catastrophe. Such people are more likely to try new religions35.
The solution is to be more cognizant of Human thinking errors. Cause and effect must be analyzed statistically, carefully, and by (social) scientists who know how to discount confounding factors. Simply put: do not assume that some action or event causes a change in the frequency of another event without investigating it properly; no matter how much it goes against common-sense to deny the correlation, cognitive thinking errors such as the regression fallacy can easily lead us to false conclusions based on limited data.
For more, see:
Homeopathic practitioners spend a lot of time with patients, talking, which in itself can have positive effects, especially on illnesses that are influenced by psychological factors.
“Alternative practitioners spend time with patients, asking about not just their medical histories but their lifestyles. They may emphasise nutrition and exercise. Many such treatments, especially the hands-on ones, are soothing. It is unsurprising if patients feel better.”
The Economist (2012)1
“This effect could reduce stress and enhance the body's own healing mechanisms in some cases. As homeopath Anthony Campbell (2008) puts it: A homeopathic consultation affords the patient an opportunity to talk at length about her or his problems to an attentive and sympathetic listener in a structured environment, and this in itself is therapeutic. In other words, homeopathy is a form of psychotherapy.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!"
Robert Todd Carroll (2011)36,37
“If uncontrollable stress affects health [...] then will people who exhibit [...] pessimism be more vulnerable to illness? Several studies have confirmed that a pessimistic style of explaining bad events (saying, "It's my responsibility, it's going to last, and it's going to undermine everything") makes illness more likely. [...] Even cancer patients appear more likely to survive if their attitude is hopeful and determined (Levy & others, 1988; Pettingale & other, 1985). One study of [cancer patients, showed that] those who participated in morale-boosting weekly support group sessions survived an average of 37 months, double the 19-month average survival time among the nonparticipants (Spiegel & others, 1989). [...] Beliefs, it seems, can boost biology.”
We see in the above examples that stress is the emotional factor relevant in most of psychoimmunology. It has already been found that those with bad stress responses are more likely over the long term to suffer from ill health.
“In their 1981 book Present and Past in Middle Life, Dorothy Eichorn and her colleagues report a significant relationship between mental health early in life and physical health during maturity. Those subjects who showed emotional stability and controlled responses to stress as adolescents had far better health at age 50 than did those subjects who had poor stress reactions when young.”
"Understanding Human Behavior" by James V. McConnel (1986)38
“The field of holistic health is often beneficial [by] helping people to cope with their illness, their disability, or their pain. [...] Various holistic health practices such as meditation, deep muscle relaxation, and positive mental imagery can make doing so easier and more gratifying. Even if such practices did nothing at all about the underlying organic causes of illness, they nevertheless help people to manage their symptoms, and they give people a sense of control over their illness - a sense of control that might be tremendously beneficial even if it turns out to be illusory.”
"How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life"
Thomas Gilovich (1991)39
Although this sounds good, it must be remembered that it is not the treatment itself that works. People are really being helped by psychotherapy - the time spent in personal reflection in an understanding environment, with nice and attentive practitioners.
The Forer effect is the seeing of a personality statement as "valid even though it could apply to anyone", and is named after the psychologist who famously demonstrated it41. In 1949, Bertram Forer conducted a personality test, and then gave all of his students exactly the same personality profile, which he constructed from random horoscopes. The students rated the accuracy of their profile at over 80% on average42! This was occasionally previously known as the Barnum effect after a popularist entertainer. Extensive studies have found that this effect applies well to horoscopes, other astrological readings, messages given from the dead by spiritualists, various cold reading tricks and other profiling endeavours43. It is often mistaken for being a product of magical or supernatural means.
For more, see: The Forer (or Barnum) Effect.
Lack of sociological sense and knowledge of cognitive errors and skeptical thinking methods leads some people to accept wild theories, based on misunderstandings of common experience. Freethought is healthy and appealing, but lack skeptical thinking also leads people into delusions and fantasies, and opens the doors for deception and consciously fraudulent practices, but most of all, for self-delusion.
“Time and time again mass-delusions have swept the world. Their downfalls are often occasioned only slowly, as the evidence and careful checking, plus, having time to think, slowly results in a culture-wide change of opinion. The most common thing that perpetuates these errors is believing in them based on personal testimonies. For example, many people argue that particular religions must be true because of how many other people believe in them44,45. Linked to this is many who chose to believe something because of the age of the belief46. Furthering such poor logic is a lack of understanding of statistical likelihood, and ignorance of thinking errors such as selection bias (where we notice confirming evidence but ignore disconfirming evidence). Because we instinctively value the popularity of a belief, our minds play a further trick on us: we tend to over-estimate how popular our own opinions are - psychologists call it the false consensus effect47. The basis of belief should be in the weight of evidence and not in a popularity contest.”
Practitioners themselves often exhibit the same credulity, allowing personal enthusiasm, pride and ego to completely obscure the need for scientific evidence. For example, take Dr Andrew Weil, who is a prolific supporter of alternative medicine who sells books and products (such as Dr Andrew Weil for Origins' "Mega-Mushroom Skin Relief Soothing Face Lotion", for $61). He has been faced with sustained criticism from the scientific community for his claims about his sham products, but, rather than accept the evidence or fund proper trials of his stuff, he simply argues that "evidence-based medicine, at its worst, is exactly analogous to religious fundamentalism"1. Whilst it is true that fundamentalists are stubborn as can be, it also happens to be true that so is evidence. Amateur thinking, poor argumentation and misleading justifications for pseudo-scientific methods afflict both practitioners and patients.
Scientists have long despaired at the distorting of science by such poor thinkers:
“Quantum consciousness is a type of spirituality or soul theory that uses the terminology of quantum physics. It is an example of "pseudo-science", where scientific terms are used without genuine understanding of their meaning, but in a way that makes outlandish theories look reasonable at first glance. In particular, it is used to justify the belief that souls exist, that remote-viewing and other psychic powers are real, and it is used to support "every New Age fantasy from telepathy to feng shui"48. The eminent physicist prof. Victor Stenger (now deceased) was a vocal critic of the abuse of quantum physics done by spiritualists of various kinds: "A new myth is burrowing its way into modern thinking [...] that the principles embodied in quantum mechanics imply a central role for the human mind in determining the very nature of the universe. Not surprisingly, this idea can be found in New Age periodicals and in many books on the metaphysical shelves of book stores"49. The Observer Effect and Quantum Entanglement are two the prime areas where non-scientific minds can often allow their imaginations to distort the science48. However strange these effects may be, quantum physics is not a doorway to magic.”
Quantum consciousness is a type of spirituality or soul theory that uses the terminology of quantum physics. It is an example of "pseudo-science", where scientific terms are used without genuine understanding of their meaning, but in a way that makes outlandish theories look reasonable at first glance. In particular, it is used to justify the belief that souls exist, that remote-viewing and other psychic powers are real, and it is used to support "every New Age fantasy from telepathy to feng shui"48. The eminent physicist prof. Victor Stenger (now deceased) was a vocal critic of the abuse of quantum physics done by spiritualists of various kinds: "A new myth is burrowing its way into modern thinking [...] that the principles embodied in quantum mechanics imply a central role for the human mind in determining the very nature of the universe. Not surprisingly, this idea can be found in New Age periodicals and in many books on the metaphysical shelves of book stores"49. The Observer Effect and Quantum Entanglement are two the prime areas where non-scientific minds can often allow their imaginations to distort the science48. However strange these effects may be, quantum physics is not a doorway to magic.
For more, see:
St John's Wort has generally been found to be mildly effective as an antidepressant1, and, this chemical alone has been responsible for many of the positive findings of research into alternative medicines. It is not known (as of 2012) how it works, although, it is only effective for everyday depression and not the severe and long-term forms of depression, for which proper medical assistance is required.
“Many people choose to look back, hoping to find secrets of health in a world before science. [...] The belief that primitive or ancient societies possessed magical cures unknown to modern science is... behind many other persistent and irrational medical superstitions.”
In the West, acupuncture is often a non-spiritual remedy proscribed for pain; especially back pain. A statistical analysis of a few thousand Chinese studies saw it most frequently used to treat ischaemic heart disease, stroke, chronic viral hepatitis, peptic ulcers, childhood diarrhoea, hyperlipidaemia, primary hypertension, upper digestive tract bleeding, diabetes mellitus, and pneumonia53. At least 26 comprehensive scientific studies of acupuncture have shown that it has no significant effect. But three large studies have found that acupuncture does reduce the incidence of headaches and migraines - although two of those have shown that sticking pins in randomly is as effective as using traditional Chinese methods. Scientists understand how the neural and hormonal stimulation of needles work in a biochemical way to sometimes produce the results of acupuncture. What is known now is what has been suspected by practitioners for a long time: the traditional talk of "energy channels", "meridians" and "acupuncture points" amongst other spiritual and mystical explanations are all untrue, discredited and defunct explanations of how acupuncture works. Instances of punctured lungs, increased pain, internal bleeding and other side-effects occur in up to 1 in 5 cases especially if a practitioner is not a medically trained doctor. It works for pain relief for medically known reasons and also due to the placebo effect54, but the traditional mumbo-jumbo associated with traditional acupuncture is best ignored.
For more, see:
Astrology is an ancient form of divination where people's lives and personalities are predicted on the basis of the juxtaposition of the sun and moon against the backdrop of the stars55 stemming from a time when we didn't understand the world56. Of particular importance for a person's whole life is their month of birth. Practices based on astrology include the production of horoscopes, prediction of imminent or medium-term events in people's lives. Belief in astrology has been in long-term decline in the developed world and it is opposed by most established organized religions57, but it is still a popular feature of many new religious movements58,59 and astrological charts can still be found in almost every daily newspaper in the form of horoscopes55. One academic writes that "there can be few Western Europeans who do not know their zodiac sign"60. It is part of the underlying theory of the New Age61,62, and is very popular in India in particular, where it is institutionalized.
Astrological predictions have been tested scientifically and have been comprehensively found to be mistaken in both theoretical underpinning and practical application63,64,65. For example, David Voas looked at over ten million married couples and found absolutely no statistical effects relating to marriages between people of particular zodiac signs66. And Chinese astrology has a long history, but, they group the stars into completely different constellations and give prominence to the lunar mansions ("a 28-sign lunar zodiac")55. So it is clear that astrology isn't based on any particular sound theory. Over the last 2000 years, the precession of the equinoxes has meant that each equinox and solstice point has moved around 30 degrees; an Aquarius today genuinely isn't the same sign as an Aquarius from history. Also, the dots that make up constellations are mostly stars, but many points are extremely distant galaxies, and the entire ensemble slowly moves and shifts over time, making most traditional methods of astrology useless67. Lack of knowledge of basic astronomy has made a mockery of astrology. Also poor is their biology: we now know that as our genes are combined at point of conception, the emphasis on the month of birth (a person's "sign") is never going to be a good predictor of personality. Especially if you don't ask subjects how long they were in the womb for. The Forer Effect explains why most people readily accept that astrological descriptions are accurate - randomly assigned profiles are rated just as highly68,69,41. Astrological predictions of statistical likelihood of car crashes, divorces, etc, based on the month of birth nearly all fall foul of a simple statistical glitch - the Age Incidence Error70. Despite these problems, many continue to believe in astrology and horoscopes because general knowledge of statistical methods and general knowledge of thinking errors such as the Forer Effect is poor. Also, it is popular because it is entertaining71.
For more, see:
I am not going to attempt to explain how practitioners might possibly believe that this works, but the idea is that by sitting in an area where the lights are alternated between different colours, can somehow cure pretty much anything. Take Colonel Dinshah Pestanji Framji Ghadiali, of Malaga, New Jersey, "who has been treating people for thirty years with coloured lights. [...] If you are diabetic [... you] bathe the body alternately with yellow and magenta light", he says72. He is apparently completely oblivious to what light is and how it works, for such therapy is absolutely and completely meaningless, except perhaps for indirect psychological effects.
There are many other colour cures for many - probably all - different maladies. Light combinations and patterns are completely made up by practitioners with absolutely no scientific basis, or evidence-base, to determine what colours to use for what ailments. It is random.
Because of the placebo effect some patients come to think it works at which point it can have serious consequences when patients choose to no longer seek genuine medical aid. For example, Ghadiali advised one diabetic father to stop taking insulin and accept the Colour Therapy instead, and unfortunately, he died 3 weeks later as a result72.
Diet has an impact on health and affects the risk of disease73. Over the last few decades biochemical and other sciences, from neural to gastric, have made impressive contributions to our knowledge74. Never before have scientists known so much about food and nutrition. Unfortunately much of this knowledge is not reported by the popular press and news outlets because it is technical, mundane and statistical in nature. The average consumer mostly hears only the sensational claims of pseudoscientific sham researchers and promoters, which are often paid for and orchestrated by the rich food industry itself. The two most misleading sources of information are reports based on single-studies and TV adverts. Most people are ill-informed about diet and health as a result of this.
There have been a long series of temporarily popular fad diets which limit food intake to a specific range of items, sometimes cutting out essential fats and proteins completely. They emphasize rapid short-term change at the expense of medium and long-term issues. Of the independent scientific studies on fad diets, supplements, mega-vitamins and similar highly-hyped abnormal sources of nutrition, all have found them to be useless and sometimes actually harmful. The National Health Service (UK) warns that "many fad diets are based on dodgy science or no research at all, prescribing eating practices that are unhealthy and can make you ill"75. The boring truth is that only well-rounded diets are truly effective at long-term weight management with only the very basic advice being effective: cut down on fats and salts, cut down on sugary and fizzy drinks, and eat plenty of wholegrain food, fruit and vegetables (5 portions a day), and drink ordinary water.76,75
Fads rely on testimonials and public-relations tricks to make themselves sound effective and claims are often based on (easily biased) single-studies rather than on independently verified and duplicated scientific trials. The mass media love reporting on these single-studies as their claims are often outlandish and celebrity endorsements boost a fad diet from time to time. Fad diets distract people from sensible eating habits. Rather than accept enthusiastic praise from soap stars, models and newspaper advertisements, it is doctors and the medical profession that we should trust to keep us informed. Let's stop falling for these tricks!
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Herbalism is also called 'botanical sciences', 'herbalism' and 'herbal supplements'. It is the practice of preparing solutions from plants and administering them to patients. Thus far, it sounds like much like many medicines. But there are extremely important differences between Herbalism and medicine:
Mainstream medicines are tested in a wide variety of conditions and are backed up with solid theory and large scale clinical trials. Herbalism does not follow the scientific route - its solutions are based on a practitioner's feel for their patient, the drugs have mostly not been tested scientifically and most doctors in nearly all developed countries avoid Herbal Remedies77.
Because Herbal Remedies use whole plants, or parts of plants, they often contain a complicated mix of drugs and chemicals, and, remedies can contain up to 10 different extracts from such mixed sources. Although it is biologically plausible that some of these have beneficial effects, the overall manner of application en masse is dangerous and there is little knowledge about what combination should be avoided, and what medical drugs that they interfere with. It is known that some Herbal Remedies cause additional risks.77
St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is one of the few Herbal Remedies that has been tested scientifically, and it is known to have beneficial effects on those suffering from mild to moderate depression, as long as it is proscribed by a doctor and is carefully prepared.77
Most Herbal Remedies are not carefully prepared. "The market of herbal medicines is litered with products that contain little or no herbal ingredients79, are adulterated with prescription drugs80, or are contaminated with heavy metals81,82". The American Society of Anesthesiologists warns that "the ingredients of herbal medications vary enormously from maker to maker, that potency and purity are inconsistent, and that product labels are not always accurate"83.
Many Herbal Remedies have been found to interfere with formal medicines and so many side-effects have been experienced that doctors now have to routinely warn patients about the use of herbal remedies, and ask them if they have been taking any before they undergo any surgery. Researchers at the University of Chicago in 2001 found that many patients do not disclose Herbal Remedies to doctors during pre-surgery surveys and as a result some of them suffer unexpected consequences, and the "American Society of Anesthesiologists has recognised the potential for adverse reactions and suggests that patients stop taking all herbal medications two weeks before surgery"83.
“More than 5,000 suspected herb-related adverse reactions were reported to the World Health Organisation before 1996, said the researchers. Between 1993 and 1998 a total of 2,621 adverse reactions, including 101 deaths, were reported to the United States Food and Drug Administration.”
BBC News (2001)83
Homeopathy is one of the biggest alternative-medicine industries, and as a result of its infamy it has been heavily studied. The conclusions of these studies is that homeopathy itself does not work84,37,85,86 and only poorly controlled experiments are more likely to show that it works87. It is founded on confused and nonsensical ideas that have been proven to be false, and products can have unexpected side-effects88. Homeopathic solutions are prepared through a series of dilutions that are so pronounced (30C) that not a single molecule of any active ingredient is found in the resultant water - the full dilution rate for a standard preparation of 30 dilutions of 1 drop in 100 is one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,00089,86. The theory is that the water has "memory", that diluting the chemical makes the cure stronger, and that this memory is somehow what cures disease. The original solution is sometimes based on a "like cures like" principal, whereby a chemical that causes similar symptoms is used, and other potions are based on the same type of basic thinking as found in herbalism. It works only by psychological side-effects90, and is akin to confidence-trickery, and as such Homeopathy works best on illnesses that have a strong psychological component, and on illnesses that come and go naturally no matter what interventions you make, like the common cold. Dr Ben Goldacre notes that "Homeopaths [... talk] about 'aggravations', explaining that sometimes the correct remedy can make symptoms get worse before they get better, and claiming that this is part of the treatment process. [...] Literally anything that happens to you after a treatment is proof of the therapist's clinical acumen and prescribing skill"91. Because people do not understand concepts such as statistical regression (most illnesses get worse then get better, all on their own) nor the placebo effect (the power of positive thinking on the body), many people are tricked into thinking that homeopathy works.84,37,87. Also, as most people don't understand what homeopathy is, many products are sold simply without the customer realizing that they're not buying medicine and that the products have not been tested to the same standards as medical products90.
For more, see:
Everyone who has looked has noticed that in two different newspapers, their horoscopes read two different things. This is because they are not based on evidence, and are made up. Horoscope writing is often given to the new guy on the press team: a friend of mine had one such job when he first started his career. He would view copies of the newspaper from 10 years ago, copy the horroscopes and simply change the English. Horoscopes are conceptually flawed, and the diagnoses are pretty much random.
In general, the comparison test is a good way to measure the truth of an alternative practice. Comparing diagnoses of different practitioners is a good way to judge the competence of the industry in question. The skeptic Martin Gardner has often done this and published many articles on the failings of alternative medicine's theories of the human body.
Chiropracty is an artform in which practitioners physically massage a customer's spine, working under the theory that many diseases are caused by pressure on the nerves in the spine. This idea has not received the support of medical researchers, and is widely dismissed by critics, even though most people agree in general that massage feels good.
“If you are a devotee of chiropractic, here is a simple test you can make. Call on a practitioner, name a few symptoms, memorize carefully the exact spots where he finds subluxations, then leave on some pretext before he gives you a treatment. Go to a second chiropractor [and] a third chiropractor, and continue until you obtain duplicate diagnoses. This may be an expensive experiment, but it should prove illuminating.”
If the theory was sound, symptoms could be tied to specific ailments; in the case of chiropractic, to specific bones in the spine. But, because there is no link between chiropractic theory and actual disease, the diagnoses are basically random.
Based on a long series of arguments and medical evidence, author Simon Singh in 2008 criticized the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) of knowingly promoting bogus treatments93. A legal battle ensued, which Simon Singh won.
“On April 15, 2010, the BCA announced that they would abandon their legal action. [... They] had the choice of either giving up or publically discussing their nonsensical, some would argue dangerous, claims. They have chosen the former, presumably to prevent further damage to the already badly tarnished image of chiropractic worldwide.”
In the 19th century, the science of phrenology was ubiquitous in the so-called developed world. "Its influence was felt in anthropology, criminology, education, medicine, psychiatry, art, and literature. [...] In Australia, it rationalized the violence against Aborigines and explained the criminality of convicts. For ordinary people everywhere a head reading was often required for employment or marriage. But how could this happen if phrenology was totally invalid?"95
It was based on the idea that as the brain has specialist areas for certain behaviours. This correct fact was demonstrated from cases of brain damage where people lost certain skills or had certain aspects of their personality changed. Phrenology came about when it was theorized that you could measure the shape of a person's skull and therefore detect which parts of their brain were enlarged, and therefore active or dominant. You could therefore measure personality traits, both conscious and subconscious. A huge following produced masses of literature, documentations and manuals on this subject. Lots of people made lots of money from it, and, even more people from government officials to private psychologists, clamoured for the know-how of phrenology.95
But the entire escapade was a result of errors in thinking, and a complete lack of statistical overview to see if the method actually worked in a provable sense. It became an art more akin to the cold-reading that con-artists do to make acceptable statements about other people's lives. For example "cautiousness" was equated with there being a bump above the ears - because a highly cautious priest had a bump there. Practitioners and subjects then all agreed that if there was a bump there in cautious people it is because phrenology was correct; if there wasn't a bump, it was because some other aspect of personality was overriding it. In other words: people could find evidence for it easily, and discount evidence against it with ad-hoc theories. It was unscientific because it did not put forward testable theories. It was based on rhetoric, coincidence and subjective interpretation. The books of "evidence" for it were comprised of anecdotes and testimonials, not of science. But none of those shortcomings was apparent to an entire culture, an entire generation, of those who believed in it, including serious people from doctors and prison wardens, to psychiatrists and police investigators. Such is the power of confirmation-bias combined with cultural enthusiasm and mass belief.95
When much-needed testing was carried out, it was a disaster for phrenology. By doing things like taking ten head casts of famous individuals and carefully measuring each bump, and comparing results, it was easily demonstrated that there was no factual basis to the art. "But phrenology was slow to die. In the 1950s phrenologists still existed in Britain and in the larger American cities." It lasted so long despite a mountain of counter-evidence that it became "one of the most thoroughly discredited theories in the history of physiological psychology".95
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When new science arises it is often followed by a wave of quackery. The popularisation of quantum physics was followed by a tsunami of books on how every kind of spiritualism and supernaturalism was now 'proven'. Quantum scientists have frequently despaired at the way legitimate theory is used to support crazy ideas, by those who use statement filled with scientific words.
Another occasion was the development of electricity. It resulted in a wave of quack treatments all claiming to use it to cure pretty much everything. People were electrocuted in precise (but meaningless) ways, people had electronic instruments waved at them, electricity moved near them, and some people merely had completely inert devices jingled at them by practitioners merely claiming that they were being cured by electricity.
Despite the confusion and pseudo-science, all practices have patients who are utterly convinced that it helped them, mostly due to the placebo effect and sometimes due to other social factors. Patricia Fara in her book on the history of science explains that where medicine is unregulated - such as alternative medicine - anything goes!
“Using electricity to treat illnesses now seems cruel and misguided. But at the time, Franklin and other eminent investigators recommended shocks for curing all sorts of ailments, ranging from flu and toothache to insanity and paralysis. There was no established medical orthodoxy, and even the best-trained traditional physicians could do little to prevent pain or cure infections. Practitioners competed with each other for wealthy clients desperate for some sort of help - and many of them wrote affidavits testifying that electrical treatments worked. Nobody had yet officially identified the placebo effect.”
The UK's National Health Service warns that "there is no legal regulation of homeopathic practitioners in the UK. This means that anyone can practise as a homeopath, even if they have no qualifications or experience"8.
“Dozens of therapies - from reiki to reflexology - are sold by thousands of practitioners represented by a dizzying array of trade associations (homeopaths, for instance, have a choice of four groups to join). Such chaos worries the government. Inspired by a report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee published in 2000, ministers are busily imposing order. Therapies reckoned particularly likely to injure patients are either already regulated by law (chiropractic and osteopathy) or soon will be (acupuncture, herbalism and Chinese medicine). For everything else, there will be a new Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), an independent regulator [...] instantly dubbed "Ofquack" by its critics. [...]
Only those therapies popular enough to have professional associations will be considered. Homeopaths and aromatherapists will be eligible; Hopi ear-candlers and Shamballa Multi-Dimensional Healing masters will not be, for now.”
The Economist (2008)97
“This huge business came under official regulation for the first time on January 19th , when the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC to its friends, Ofquack to critics), partly financed by the Department of Health and inspired by Prince Charles's Foundation for Integrated Health, opened its door. [...] CNHC will register practitioners who sign a code of conduct, take out insurance and provide evidence of some training". [Registration is voluntary.]
Unlike the bodies that oversee doctors and nurses, the CNHC takes no interest in whether its practitioners' efforts actually work.[...]
Besides the CNHC and the Office of Fair-Trading (the consumer-protection watchdog), the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency oversees homeopathy but no other alternative therapy. This agency, whose day job is to license conventional drugs, excuses homeopathy, unlike other treatments, from proving it is more effective than a placebo. With no medical regulator on the case, it has often been left to the Advertising Standards Authority to rule on whether alternative medicine does what it claims to. [...]
In the Journal of the Scottish Law Society, Douglas MacLaughlin, a Glaswegian lawyer, points out that consumer-protection laws new in 2008 specifically forbid false claims that a product can cure a disease. This could make life difficult for purveyors of alternative medicine, much of which does not work or has never been tested.”
The Economist (2009)2
Most alternative therapies, practices, and new age psychology, works on the placebo effect, suggestion or cold-reading. That is, none of them work according to the principles that they claim to work by. Psychological trickery is often the only reason why people think that these practices are effective. Practitioners themselves often believe in them, although there are also many scoundrels who merely abuse the gullible public in order to make money. Many practitioners have only done brief courses in their particular discipline and understand very little of medicine and human biology in total, meaning that they are prone to completely misdiagnose serious symptoms, and to offer their own alternative therapy as a suitable cure. When the public come to believe in and accept these therapies, and fail to seek out proper medical help, the results can be very dangerous and many deaths have resulted as a result1. In short, alternative medicines need to be regulated much more closely, but, more importantly, mass-education in basic science and critical is needed. Until then, alternative practitioners should be required to display warnings that patients should still see real doctors, and that treatments are unproven.