In case you haven’t heard about this yet: The company who makes Airborne, the overpriced vitamin pill that supposedly prevents you from catching colds but that actually does bupkis, has settled a large class action suit against them, and will be refunding $23.3 million to customers who bought the stuff. (Good piece about it on Respectful Insolence).
I don’t so much want to talk about the story itself — although I do find it interesting. Especially since the laws about making health claims for “dietary supplements” are so weak and half-assed. It’s actually quite remarkable that this case succeeded. The Airborne people had an enormous amount of latitude in what kinds of claims they could make — and they still screwed up and overstepped their extremely generous boundaries.
But that’s not what I want to talk about.
There was a comment by Calli Arcale in the Respectful Insolence discussion about Airborne that really jumped out at me. I hadn’t thought if it in these terms before, and it shifted some stuff around in my brain.
Here’s the thought: Why should skepticism of conventional medicine translate into faith in alternative medicine?
There are good reasons to have a healthy skepticism of conventional medicine. It has horrors in its past; it’s often too focused on pharmaceuticals and procedures instead of lifestyle changes (although that’s changing a lot); and like all sciences, there’s a huge amount it doesn’t yet know. And in the United States, the conventional medical system is seriously broken. It’s too corporate, too tied in with money and profit — causing real harm to patients, and great frustration to the providers who genuinely want to give good health care. (In Europe it works a whole lot better… but that’s not much help if you’re living in the U.S.)
So yes. It’s good to be skeptical of conventional medicine. Here, in my opinion, are some appropriate forms for that skepticism to take: Ask your doctor lots of questions. Do research on your health conditions and the treatments you’re getting for them. Don’t automatically take the first course of action your doctor recommends; find out what your options are. Periodically revisit your treatments and make sure they’re still appropriate and up-to-date. Eat a healthy diet, get regular vigorous exercise, and for the love of Loki, quit smoking if you smoke. (Okay, those last ones aren’t actually skeptical of conventional medicine — conventional medicine is constantly begging people to eat better, exercise more, and quit smoking — but it’s a good way to improve your health and reduce the amount of time you spend in the doctor’s office.)
But here, in my opinion, is a bad form for that skepticism to take: Reject conventional medicine entirely. And replace it with alternative medicine…. which has all of the flaws of conventional medicine, and just about none of its advantages.
Which brings me back to the question: Why should skepticism of conventional medicine translate into faith in alternative medicine?
Yes, conventional medicine is flawed. But a fair amount of the time, it works. Our life expectancy is almost twice that of our ancestors, and that’s due in large part to conventional medicine. I could go on about it for days: from anti-depressants to heart surgery, from the elimination of huge numbers of deadly childhood diseases to the effective treatment of high blood pressure; from the eradication of smallpox to the fact that many people with AIDS can now have a pretty long and decent life.
And more to the point — in fact, the very reason for all these successes — conventional medicine has a system in place, the scientific method, for testing its treatments and making sure they actually, you know, work, and are reasonably safe. It’s not a perfect system — but it’s far, far better than no system at all.
Which brings me back to the big question, the question I asked over and over again the last time I brought this up and to which I never got a satisfactory answer: What does alternative medicine have to offer that conventional medicine doesn’t?
Alternative medicine has horrors and frauds in its past, every bit as much as conventional medicine. Read the history of the turn- of- the- century el-quacko health movement if you don’t believe me. Alternative medicine is every bit as focused on powders and potions and weird procedures as conventional medicine — they’re just different powders and potions and procedures. Alternative medicine is flying in the dark every bit as much as conventional medicine — in fact, far more so, since by definition conventional medicine is medicine that’s been subjected to rigorous testing, and by definition alternative medicine is medicine that hasn’t.
And alternative medicine is every bit as driven by money and profit as conventional medicine. The Airborne thing is a great example. Alternative medicine is a huge industry, and a hugely profitable one. In fact, the two are overlapping more and more: CAM companies (complimentary and alternative medicine) are being bought up in increasing numbers by the big bad Big Pharma… for the simple reason that CAM brings in pots of money, without all that pesky and expensive double-blind, placebo-controlled, peer-reviewed testing. (Funny how you hear so much about Big Pharma, but you almost never hear about Big CAM…)
So what does alternative medicine bring to the table that conventional medicine doesn’t?
And once again, why should skepticism of conventional medicine translate into faith in alternative medicine?
I’ve seen this kind of thinking a lot. Western religion is bad… therefore Eastern religion is good. Modern strip-mall monoculture is bad… therefore our bucolic rural past was good. Capitalism is bad… therefore Communism is good. (You don’t see this last one so much anymore, but it used to be very common indeed.) And in progressive lefty circles, there’s almost a knee-jerk belief that anything conventional is bad, and anything alternative is good.
But it doesn’t make sense. Being critical of something doesn’t mean you should automatically embrace its opposite.
Put conventional and alternative medicine side by side. You get two systems of medicine, both with serious flaws. In fact, both with many of the same flaws. But conventional medicine offers something that alternative medicine doesn’t: a reasonable likelihood that any given treatment has been rigorously tested and found to be effective at least some of the time.
What does alternative medicine offer?
As far as I can tell, pretty much bupkis. From homeopathy to Reiki, aromatherapy to reflexology, careful, double-blind, placebo-controlled, peer-reviewed testing has shown almost every example of it to be useless at best. It has occasional hits — the use of meditation to relieve stress, for instance — but it has far, far fewer hits than conventional medicine. It’s a stopped clock that’s right twice a day. And it has no method in place for resetting the clock.
If you’re going to be skeptical of conventional medicine — and I think you should — you need to be every bit as skeptical about alternative medicine. Unless you want to go back to the days of unregulated patent medicines — of Lydia Pinkham’s Herb Medicine and Pulvermacher’s Electric Belts, the Gold Cure for Neurasthenia and Simpson & Son’s Patented Revitalizing Tonic — you need to be just as skeptical about alternative medicine as you are about conventional medicine. And probably more so, since there’s no FDA or medical establishment whose job it is to be skeptical for you. It doesn’t make sense to be be skeptical of the one and credulous about the other.