Exploring the alternative

I live in Vancouver. Vancouver is home to quite a bit of what is wildly-inaccurately called “alternative medicine”. What people think they mean by this term is medical treatments that fall outside of the conventional combination of surgery, pharmaceuticals, and other forms of medicine that one expects to find in a hospital. Some even fancy these treatments as operating in a different medical paradigm – an entirely new way of looking at the human body and human health.

The truth is that “alternative” medicine has been around forever – it’s how we treated illness before we understood anything about immunology, biology, biochemistry, physics… basically it’s what we did while we were all idiots. Apparently some of us are still wedded to our historical idiocy, and are promoting this prescientific bafflegab under the label of “alternative”. However, there’s nothing alternative about it – it’s just the stuff that doesn’t qualify as real medicine.

People here in North America don’t seem to appreciate this line of reasoning. They accuse people who recognize the importance of basing our health care decisions on scientific evidence of being “closed-minded” and “reductionist”. This is an inaccurate characterization, since the whole principle of the scientific method requires open-mindedness and evaluation of truth based solely on observed phenomena. However, cloaked in a certainty borne of smug arrogance (“science doesn’t know everything – there are other ways to know things”), people readily flock to nonsense ‘treatments’ like reiki, homeopathy, acupuncture, reflexology, and a whole host of others.

However, there are millions of people who turn to these ‘alternative’ therapies because they can’t get actual medicine:

Ignoring the red-and-white danger sign, Sri Mulyati walks slowly to the train tracks outside Indonesia’s bustling capital, lies down and stretches her body across the rails to seek electric therapy. Like the nearly dozen others lined up along the track, the 50-year-old diabetes patient has all but given up on doctors and can’t afford the expensive medicines they prescribe. In her mind, it is only option left. “I’ll keep doing this until I’m completely cured,” said Mulyati, twitching visibly as an oncoming passenger train sends an extra rush of current racing through her body.

Side effects may include headaches, nausea, cramps, and being crushed by a motherfucking train. It is sad to see that a complete lack of a social safety net has resulted in conditions being this bad (are you paying attention Americans? Republican North Party?). It’s stuff like this that lights the fire under me to keep defending a well-run and publicly-funded health care system.

Back to my original point though. I challenge anyone who promotes ‘alternative medicines’ to explain why this particular therapy is stupid, but your treatment of choice isn’t. For those promoting science-based medicine, this task is easy: rigorous examination of patients reveals that those that lie on train tracks to cure their diabetes experience the same rate of cure as those that pursue homeopathy, reiki, crystals, ‘distance healing’, and whatever other nonsense term you’d like to throw out there.

If you’re not of a mind to call this therapy stupid and think that there’s something to it, then I really have to question your sanity. These are people risking their lives for a cure that not only doesn’t work, but can’t possibly work. Diabetes is not a condition of the nervous system. Electrical shocks would have no effect on the ability of the pancreas to produce its own insulin. The only thing that repeated and prolonged shocks might do is the same kind of effect you see in electroconvulsive therapy – massive release of endorphins and neurotransmitters, causing temporary feelings of euphoria. It would certainly explain the types of testimonials available in the article:

But Mulyati insists it provides more relief for her symptoms — high-blood pressure, sleeplessness and high cholesterol — than any doctor has since she was first diagnosed with diabetes 13 years ago.

Illness is a complex and multifaceted concept. I am entirely willing (and so is the medical community) to grant that there is a psychological role to all disease. This doesn’t mean anything quite so Chopra-riffic as being able to think yourself well from cancer, but it does suggest that management of any kind of illness requires an understanding of patient psychology. Anyone who can tap into a patient psychologically can provide “relief” of a certain kind, but that doesn’t do anything to treat the underlying biophysical problem.

Then again, some problems are not exactly biophysical:

The Philippine government has warned against using geckos to treat various diseases, including Aids and cancer, saying the traditional and common practice across southeast Asia could put the ill at greater risk. A Philippine health department statement said on Friday that the use of geckos as treatments had no scientific basis and could be dangerous because patients might not seek proper treatment for their diseases. “This is likely to aggravate their overall health and put them at greater risk,” it said. Treatments for asthma are easily available and affordable, while there are antiviral drugs to control the progress of HIV, the statement added.

Sometimes the problems are more deeply entrenched than even an adequately-funded health care system can address. Proponents of ‘alternative medicine’ often point to the age and popularity of their nonsense as evidence that it must work. After all, the reasoning goes, why would people stick with something that doesn’t make you better? Surely people are inherently rational and will abandon bogus medical intervention once they have been shown not to work. As difficult a time as alt-med types have with evidence, it seems to point in the opposite direction of this hypothesis.

And sure enough, just like in the Phillippines, there are always those who are hovering around the crowd of desperate sick people, circling like vultures and waiting for an opportunity to make a quick buck. The problem is that there will always be hucksters and charlatans who are more interested in making money than making people feel better. Worse, there are those that honestly believe they are helping, but who don’t bother to follow up or investigate their ‘patients’ longer than it takes to pocket their fee and hear a testimonial.

This is a problem that can be addressed only in part by legislation – we can’t really legislate people into rationality. It is for this reason that I am a partisan skeptic: we need to be actively promoting the ideals of basing our decision-making on scientific evidence, rather than simply saying “well people are going to do what they want.” This kind of arch-liberal hands-off cowardice is laying out the path for more abuse, fraud, and ultimately preventable deaths.

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  1. Kate from Iowa says

    Come on over here darling Autumn, it’s time for your bloodletting. Now, I’ve heard of a new treatment that we’re going to use with you, because all real medicine is individualised, not like that nasty allopatic Western medicine. Now, I’m going to open a few of your veins and stick in these little bamboo “quills” to keep them open, then I’m going to douse you in beer. There. Now, get in there…no, not that pond, the more stagnant one. See, if there are no disruptions in the water, the evi…*ahem* the toxins can’t get in. So you get in there, and fish me out about five or…no…no…seven, your aura’s telling me you need seven slugs. Nice big ones, but not too big. You’ll know you have the right ones because they’ll match your health vibrations on a quantum level…

  2. Amber says

    Another funny thing about the railroad “shock” therapy. If you look at the photos from the news story, the tracks appear to have a wire over head but no third rail. This means no current goes through the tracks, it’s all in the power lines. If a current actually were in the tracks people would be dying from electrocution left and right around these tracks.

  3. Autumn says

    Ha! Goes to show what you know.
    Beer totally doesn’t work. Gotta be something stronger… like whiskey!

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