Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine by Dr. Paul Offit.
I have friends who drive me mad with alt med crapola. People who shun vaccines, people who chug mega-doses of Emergen-C (and catch colds regularly anyway – but still swear it worked!), who go on and on about natural this and herbal that, until I wish to scream. There aren’t enough links to enough studies to explain why I get heartily sick of this bullshit.
Fortunately, I can now direct them to download this quite-reasonably priced ($1.99 for Kindle, last I checked – yowza!) book by a man who 1. knows his shit, 2. thoroughly mucks out the bullshit, and 3. is just kind enough to the placebo effect of some alt med treatments to placate these people.
Those of you who’ve been in the trenches of the vaccine wars probably know Paul as one of the despised enemies of anti-vaxxers. This book is an excellent example of why they hate him: it’s clear, concise, and full of citations to studies that make it very, very difficult to counter him. Also, he’s fair almost to a fault. Alt-med? He’s tried it himself. He’s given things like glucosamine a spin. He’s had less-than-satisfactory experiences with conventional medicine, so he gets why you might like something different. Sure. But then he says, let’s look at the studies – and there we have bad news. No better than placebo. Oh, dear. Better stick with the stodgy stuff, then, unless your condition is amenable to treatment by placebo, in which case, alt-med yourself out (on the safe stuff, anyway).
That’s the book in a nutshell.
Within these pages, many darlings of the alt-med scene are given a harsh dose of reality. Fans of Dr. Mehmet Oz, Depak Chopra, Dr. Andrew Weil, Suzanne Somers, Stanislaw Burzynsky, Jenny McCarthy, Joe Mercola, and other such purveyors of woo will become distressed as their darlings are demolished. People who pop vitamins are in for some very severe shocks. Supplement sectarians are about to get a rude awakening. Most of the book is merciless, and rightly so.
Most of these fatal blows are delivered with calm precision and gentle reliance on the facts, but the message is driven home with the occasional zinger, like this (my favorite line in the book): “Unfortunately, Vitamin O [oxygen] users lacked the one thing necessary to extract oxygen from water: gills.” Beauty.
I felt he went a little – perhaps a lot – too easy on the purveyors of placebos at the end (a trait he shares, interestingly enough, with Mark Twain, who had a big softy for Christian Science for just that reason: the placebo effect). I’m afraid those prone to such things will seize upon this and shriek that their pet nostrum really and truly works. I would guide their attention to the paragraphs in the final section that throw a bucket of cold water over the love fest. These are the four ways Paul divides practitioners of placebo medicine from outright quacks. For those who are curious, or need the crash course as an immediate inoculation against woo for self or others, they are these:
“First, by recommending against conventional therapies that are helpful.” If it quacks that you don’t need that chemo, it’s a quack. Run.
Second, “by promoting potentially harmful therapies without adequate warning.” If it quacks that its horrid green goo is 1000% safe despite being full of arsenic, it’s a quack. Run.
Third, “by draining patients’ bank accounts.” If it quacks it can heal you, but needs extravagant amounts of money to do so, it’s a quack. Run.
Fourth, “by promoting magical thinking.” You know the drill by now.
After reading this book, I feel much better prepared for the next dissertation on the wonders of alt-med I’m subjected to. And I have a handy tome to hand them that may, just possibly, save their lives. At the very least, it should make them wiser about their medical choices, save them some coin, and promote some harmony between them and the skeptics in their lives. Not bad for one little book, eh?