The dilemmas at the heart of 'alternative
All forms of ineffective treatment, 'alternative' or
otherwise, pose real dilemmas that are usually neglected.
The definition dilemma
The lying dilemma
- Once any treatment is shown beyond doubt to be effective, it
ceases to be 'alternative' and becomes just like any other part
of medical knowledge. That means that 'alternative medicine'
must consist entirely of unproven treatments.
- Suppose that a treatment owes all its effectiveness to the
placebo effect, e,g. homeopathy (even
Fisher almost admitted as much). But in some people, at
least, the placebo effect is quite real. It may be a genuine
physical response, though one that does not depend in any
activity of the drug, or other treatment.
- If the placebo effect is real, it would be wrong to deprive
patients of them, if there is nothing more effective available.
For example, if terminal cancer patients say they feel better
after having their feet tickled by a 'reflexologist', why should
they not have that small pleasure?
- If the foregoing argument is granted, then it follows that
it would be our duty to maximise the placebo effect. In the
absence of specific research, it seems reasonable to suppose
that individuals who are susceptible to placebo effects, will
get the best results if their treatment is surrounded by as much
impressive mumbo jumbo as possible.
- This suggests that, in order to maximixe the placebo effect,
it will be important to lie to the patient as much as possible,
and certainly to disguise from them the fact that, for example,
their homeopathic pill contains nothing but lactose.
- Therein lies the dilemma. The whole trend in medicine has
been to be more open with the patient and to tell them the
truth. To maximise the benefit of alternative medicine,
it is necessary to lie to the patient as much as possible.
As if telling lies to patients were not enough, the dilemma has
another aspect, which is also almost always overlooked. Who trains
CAM practitioners? Are the trainers expected to tell their students
the same lies? Certainly that is the normal practice at the moment.
Consider some examples.
The training dilemma
- If feet tickling makes patients feel better, it might be
thought necessary to hire professional feet ticklers who have
been trained in 'reflexology'. But who does the training?
It cannot be expected that a university will provide a
course that preaches the mumbo jumbo of meridians, energy lines
and so on.
- A good example is acupuncture. It is often stated that one
of the best documented forms of 'alternative medicine' is
acupuncture. Certainly the act of pushing needles into to your
body elicits real physiological responses. But recent
experiments suggest that it matters very little where
the needles are inserted. There are no 'key' points: it
is the pricking that does it. But its advocates try to 'explain'
the effects, along these lines.
I suppose, to the uneducated, the language sounds a bit like
that of physics. But it is not. The words have no
discernable meaning whatsoever. They are pure gobbledygook. Can
any serious university be expected to teach such nonsense as
though the words meant something? Of course not. Well
so you'd think, though a few 'universities' have fallen for
this, to their eternal shame (e.g, Westminster, Thames Valley,
Salford, Central Lancashire, Lincoln:
below for more).
- "There are 14 major avenues of energy flowing through
the body. These are known as meridians".
- The energy that moves through the meridians is called
- Think of Qi as "The Force". It is the energy that makes
a clear distinction between life and death.
- Acupuncture needles are gently placed through the skin
along various key points along the meridians. This helps
rebalance the Qi so the body systems work harmoniously.