Alternative medicine: a dangerous game

In this article I discuss why alternative medicines are bad, how the placebo effect works, and how such remedies are dangerous to the user and to others.

I am keenly aware that I need to tread carefully with this post. I know a number of people that will disagree with me, and even a chance that some other people will attempt to sue me.

It is my firm belief that alternative medicines are a danger to health and life for everyone, and not just those that choose to use it. I am talking about treatments such as Homeopathy, Crystal Therapy, Accupuncture, Chiropracty, and many others.

Why they don’t work

I believe many of these methods mentioned here to be a fraud or at most a misplaced faith in something which doesn’t actually have any scientific reason behind it. Homeopathy, for example, is not just without reason for working, it’s actually counter to reason.

I’m picking on homeopathy here mainly because I can’t address all alternative medicines in this article. Homeopathy relies on choosing a substance that is believed to be linked to the health problem in question. That substance is then diluted in water many times over, and the water shaken to imprint “memory” of the substance. Given that most illnesses are caused by viruses, bacteria and genetics, the choice of material for the homeopathic remedy is largely arbitrary.

Leaving aside for a moment the choice of substance that is supposed to help with treatment, I’m afraid that the notion of diluting something to make it stronger just doesn’t wash. True, vaccines rely on a small amount of dead virus to trigger an immune response and train the immune system, but homeopathic medicine is not like that. No, in homeopathy, the substance is diluted so much that there is nothing left at all. Commonly a substance is diluted 100:1, and that is sometimes repeated up to 30 times. After 12 times, though, the likelihood is that not a single molecule of the original substance remains behind. Scientists call this the Avogadro Limit.

Homeopaths counter this by arguing that water “remembers” the substance. This is of course nonsense. The atoms and molecules cannot remember anything. If they did, the atomic or molecular structure would not be that of hydrogen, oxygen or water. Apparently shaking the water in a certain way helps the memory here. I’m not even going to write about what’s wrong with that.

For more information about homeopathy have a look at the excellent resource that is www.1023.org.uk

The placebo effect

Alternative medicines are, dare I say it, actually not without some beneficial effect. Although most do nothing to heal the body or fight infection through any physical changes, they often do help through the Placebo effect. The placebo effect is “measurable, observable, or felt improvement in health not attributable to treatment” and is the subject of much ongoing scientific research. The placebo effect is know to help with pain relief in particular, but also even to improve physical health. It has been observed on conventional and alternative medicine alike, and some scientists even believe that some conventional medicine works more as a placebo than a physical change. The placebo effect is beneficial enough that it is actually worth using as a medical treatment. Recent research found that a placebo can work even if the recipient knows that it is a placebo!

There is also some placebo effect because practitioners of alternative medicine are likely to show more interest in and spend more time with their patients. When NHS doctors are under so much pressure, spending a few hours with them is unlikely, whereas that can easily happen with an alternative medicine practitioner.

Why it harms people

You may think that if an alternative medicine is unlikely to poison someone, and may well even give them a benefit from the placebo effect, that there is no harm in allowing them to use it. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.

Alternative medicines can cause people to avoid conventional medical treatment that works, in a situation where a placebo does not work and leaving a condition untreated could be fatal. Diseases such as diabetes, where the patient needs medicine or insulin, could be left untreated and lead to stroke and blindness. A flu virus could run it’s course unchecked in an elderly person and cause death. I am sure there are many more examples that I could list here.

People that use alternative medicines are also likely to avoid vaccinations out of mistrust of conventional medicine or of fear of side effects. This is the part that could harm us all. In order to eradicate diseases such as smallpox, measles and polio, a critical percentage of the population must be vaccinated. This is called herd immunity. When enough people are vaccinated, the remainder of vulnerable people are unlikely to be infected through other people carrying the virus. There are places where measles and mumps have returned with a vengeance because herd immunity has broken down after many people chose not to be vaccinated.

Opting out of vaccination is as likely to be caused by a failure to understand the scientific method as by the use of homeopathic remedies, but then using homeopathic remedies is also likely to be caused by a failure to understand the scientific method.

Another way that homeopathy harms people is that it receives NHS funding. That’s right, the NHS spends £4 million per year on paying for something that doesn’t work when it could spend that money on a myriad of more sensible things. Homeopathy is stealing from us all.

Conclusion

It is not possible to dismiss all alternative therapies out of hand. Unfortunately, to the average person, medicine is divided into conventional, and alternative. I am guilty taking this line from the science side, but many people view it from the alternative side. Because of this, many people will take the view that because something did work for them, be it through a measurable effect of an active ingredient, or through the placebo effect, that therefore all alternative medicines must work. In practice some work, some don’t. Some are outright harmful, others can be based on sound logic that simply hasn’t been through clinical trials and adopted by the scientific and medical communities.

Those “alternative” medicines that actually use active ingredients such as plant extracts should be tested in full double-blind clinical trials and if they work, adopted in  conventional medicine where useful. The ones that fail should be dismissed and abandoned.

While there may be some benefit from the placebo effect when using alternative medicine, I believe people are much better off in using conventional, tested and scientifically proven medicine. After all, that has a placebo effect too. And as a person with a fairly broken immune system, I beg you, don’t skip your vaccinations. You could kill me.

On scepticism and god

Warning: contains religion and uncertainty

I have come to realise that the way I think about things has a name. Scepticism. It’s easy to spot sometimes. Internet scams, bogus medicine, bizarre ideas and rumours, I can easily see that I am a sceptic when it comes to those. Generally when something new comes up I use the scientific method to determine fact from fiction.

Over the last few months I have been paying a lot more attention to sceptics and scepticism. I follow a few well known sceptics and scientists on Twitter and read their blogs. In the last few days an argument has been brewing relating to the Skepticon convention. They have been accused of being a purely atheist convention rather than catering to all sceptics. It has led several prominent atheists to stand up and say that scepticism and atheism are the same thing, and others have said that they are not the same thing but religion is the most important thing to be sceptical about because of the amount of harm that religion has done. It has also been said that Skepticon is not an atheist convention, with only three out of fifteen speakers talking about religion, although others have claimed that more talks ended with atheist conclusions.

Since it is not possible to prove a negative, it is impossible to say that god does not exist. Technically this means that a sceptic that has concluded there is no proof of god should become an agnostic, not an atheist. The justification that has been used for becoming an atheist instead has often been the Null Hypothesis If you have a hypothesis about something, you must come up with the opposite hypothesis, and then test statistically whether one or the other is more likely. For a brilliant explanation involving aliens and socks, have a look here. Atheism can be seen as the null hypothesis, with the existence of god as the alternative hypothesis to be tested.  To me, it seems partly a cop out that non-believers would choose to be atheist rather than agnostic, but at the same time I can see how the same concept applies to things like homeopathic remedies or horoscopes.

It does seem to be the case that most self-identified sceptics are also atheists. I have had conversations where I have been told that I cannot be a sceptic without also being an atheist. I have to admit to struggling with this idea. Why do I believe in god when I question everything else? I can’t answer that in any acceptable way. I just don’t know.

This leaves me in a difficult position. I believe, not because of any kind of logic, but purely through experience. I have been to church, prayer times and worship meetings and have worshipped god, and been truly lost in the worship. I have seen great examples of faith around me. At the same time, I constantly struggle with claims of healing, (which seemingly does not apply to me) and recently walked out of a healing service our of sheer frustration. I struggle at people that pray and ask god for things that I think he is never going to give, often because people can sort that stuff out themselves. I frequently have the thought “God doesn’t work that way!”

I am left with the option of compartmentalising my faith away from my scepticism, or going with logic and losing my faith completely. I have gone with the first option for months now, but I am consciously aware of the division in my thinking, and not owning an electric monk, the breakdown in logic is causing a lot of frustration.