Everything You Need to Know About Complementary and Alternative Medicine (Part 1)

(Just belaboring the obvious again. Some things should speak for themselves but judging from my angry email defending Complementary and Alternative Medicine, this is not the case. Rather than respond publicly to private emails I thought I would address some of the major themes of my critics. -PB)

1. The Imperfections of real medicine do not validate your kooky theories.

You, oh purveyor of snake oil, may exhaust yourself pointing out the flaws in medical science. You may grimly list the horrific side effects of many of our therapies and gleefully highlight the lack of evidence for quite a few things done in the real medical world. You may even solemnly condemn our general inability to really cure much of anything but, apart from making yourself really tired and giving me a crick in my neck from nodding in agreement, all you will have demonstrated is that real medicine is an imperfect business which is not a huge revelation to anyone who has spent more than an hour in a nursing home, a hospital, or any other place where you can find incredibly sick people who, despite our best efforts, often remain incredibly sick and die after being flogged by the mightiest weapons in the medical arsenal. A darn shame but it does not follow that the solution to our limited medical knowledge is pixie dust, magical gnomes, or spiritual energy streaming from your fingertips.

On the other hand, while medicine is imperfect you’d have to be a moron or totally brainwashed into your particular CAM cult to not recognize the tremendous advances in medicine even over the last twenty years to say nothing of the huge leap from the days of snake oil at the turn of the last century. That’s the point of modern medicine. It advances. Expanding knowledge leads to to increasingly sophisticated and effective therapies. It’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine that is perfect. Everything you need to know about acupuncture for example, was elucidated a thousand years ago well before those wily Chinese had even the foggiest notion about germs or cardiac physiology. They so totally nailed it that no new research needs to be done. It’s all about qi and the meridians along which it happily flows and is so perfect as to be impervious to debate, refutation, or criticism. While we plod along with our feeble attempts to expand medical knowledge acupuncturists ply their needles in service of a perfect medical philosophy that was ossified in the Dark Ages.

2. The complexity of your kooky theory does not validate it.

For thousands of years Astrology was considered a legitimate science and the best minds of those distant ages devoted their lives to deriving horoscopes and divining the effects of the stars on our lives. They wrote books, developed complicated theories, and tried to apply the principles of Astrology in every aspect of life including medicine. And yet today if you proposed endowing a Chair of Astrology at your Alma Mater or incorporated horoscopes in your medical practice I have no doubt that even the most laissez-faire of liberal academics, grimly keeping their minds open in the face of every other stupidity under the sun, would at last have their fill and laugh in your face with all the pent-up rage of a politically correct bureaucrat forced to shuck and jive to ideas he knows to be ridiculous. Clearly astrology is ridiculous despite the vast amounts of intellectual energy that have been (and still are) devoted to it.

In the same vein, I have no doubt that Ayurvedic Medicine has been beaten to death by the learned men of India for thousands of years in the same manner that Astrology was dissected in the West. I also have no doubt that there is a massive body of Ayurvedic scholarship collecting dust in libraries from Duluth to Calcutta. But as it’s a system of medicine based on a highly imperfect understanding of physiology, more religious than scientific, and Indians who used it pretty much dropped like flies from diseases that it took Western medicine to defeat, except for historical interest all of that intellectual activity is as useless as trying to divine the future from the entrails of birds. You can learn Sanskrit to really get into the source material but you’re wasting your time. The initial premise is wrong and, like a house built on weak foundation, no matter how much you spend on the bathrooms it’s still going to collapse.

3. Complementary and Alternative Medicine is parasitic, not symbiotic.

Suppose I were to actually build a house. Along with a foundation it would require framing of the walls and floors, siding, wiring, glazing, plumbing and a dozen other skilled trades coordinating their efforts. The practitioners of Complementary and Alternative Medicine would be like your Aunt Mildred telling you how to hang the toilet paper in the finished bathrooms and then trying to claim credit as an essential part in the construction. Complementary and alternative medicine only exists because real medicine does all of the heavy lifting leaving a risk-free environment in which it may ply its patent remedies. At best it’s an afterthought, something that legitimate hospitals add to their services to attract the kook money. At worst it’s a cynical ploy to fleece a little extra from the desperate, many of whom are dying and will gladly pay for another straw to grasp. In no way is it an essential part of medical therapy except that it provides entertainment to the patients and their families while medicine and nature run their courses.

4. Placebo Medicine is not Medicine.

Millions of dollars are wasted every year on shoddily constructed studies trying to demonstrate efficacy of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The results have been disappointing and entirely predictable. Generally, if you ignore poor study design and spin the data just so, CAM is shown to be occasionally but not reliably slightly, and we’re talking slightly, more effecitive than placebo. These results are naturally touted as a both a huge victory for kook-dom and as a justification for continuing to charge large sums of money for therapies that are so close to placebo in their effectivness that you should wonder why the opposite conclusion isn’t derived. In other words, maybe if your treatment modality is so iffy, requiring as it does to be viewed through squinted eyes in dim light at a distance of several hundred feet to show even a trace of effectivness, maybe you need to reassess your career goals. Call me a cynic but something that is slightly better than placebo could also be called next to useless. Certainly not worth spending a lot of money on unless it carries a big disclaimer saying, “For Entertainment Purposes Only.”

Everything You Need to Know About Complementary and Alternative Medicine (Part 1)

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