Quackery

I’m an epidemiologist, which means that I’m supposed to be a champion of evidence.  (The definition of “evidence” is another long topic, that I hope to tackle in long form some other time.)  It also means that it has become my role to constantly debunk pseudo-science, and most commonly fake medicine.

One of my frivolous pasttimes is trying medical “therapies” that lie outside the realm of mainstream scientific belief.  I figure one shouldn’t criticize something unless one has tried that thing.  And believe you me, I’ve tried them all: Reiki, Bowen Therapy, Reflexology, Sound Therapy, Homeopathy, blah blah blah blah.

Some of them are quite pleasant.  I particularly enjoy all forms of Reflexology: it feels just great, even though there’s no evidence that it does anything it claims to do.  I will likely continue to seek Reflexology treatments, ’cause I’m a sucker for feeling good.

And I know this might offend some of my regular readers, but I have to tell you: the two most frustrating of the more popular evidence-free therapies are Homeopathy and Reiki, mostly because even their very premises are, well, completely insane.  (At least Bowen Therapy, to name one, purports to have a testable mechanism that is somewhat based on something resembling a scientific premise seated in known physiological facts.)  They are doubly frustrating because I know of so many demonstrably smart people who will swear by these forms of “therapy”, usually without the honest self-evaluation required to identify a placebo effect.

My criticisms aren’t based on any casual dismissal of premise, but on the published, rigorous evidence.  Show me new evidence and I will happily change my mind.  Seriously, I’m openminded like that.  I just wish defenders of these therapies were equally as openminded to the evidence discrediting their favourite techniques.  And, despite widespread belief to the contrary, there is heft of well designed clinical studies that have tested the more popular of the so-called alternative therapies.  Homeopathy in particular has been rigorously investigated.

Now, while I know that attempted suicide is no laughing matter, I had to laugh aloud when I read of Alexa Ray Joel’s suicide attempt…. she tried to overdose on a homeopathic drug!  That’s like trying to overdose on water!  I mean it’s possible… but just drink gallons of tap water, not a few pills from a quack’s bottle of nonsense!

As you can probably tell, I have special ire for Homeopathy, which persists in modern culture because it tries to hide amongst Naturopathy and other so-called “holistic” approaches, which frankly have stronger evidence legs to stand on.

And I have a lot of empathy for believers in Reiki because, well, there is something beautiful about envisioning a world in which one can cure with one’s “life energy” via “magic hands”.  It’s both generous and personal.  I wish it were real, I honestly do.  But sorry, the clinical trials say it ain’t so.

A lot of people reading this are going to confuse Homeopathy with Herbal Medicine.  They are NOT the same thing.  Herbal medicine employs actual pharmaco-active substances that usually do something or other in your body.  Homeopathy, if it worked, would actually violate pretty much every known law of Physics.  And again, I’m open to that possibility…. just show me some hard, reproducible and falsifiable evidence.

But, of course, no such evidence is forthcoming.  So I give you LiveScience.com’s list of the top “Alternative” medicine quackery thingies debunked in 2009. (Click the previous link for details):

  1. Reiki
  2. Reflexology
  3. Homeopathy
  4. Magnetic therapy
  5. Kava

While we’re at it, here’s the same site’s list of medical myths that even some physicians keep pushing.  (I must say, even I have been guilty of the drowsy turkey one):

  1. Myth: We use only 10 percent of our brains.
  2. Myth: You should drink at least eight glasses of water a day.
  3. Myth: Fingernails and hair grow after death.
  4. Myth: Shaved hair grows back faster, coarser and darker.
  5. Myth: Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight.
  6. Myth: Eating turkey makes you drowsy.
  7. Myth: Mobile phones are dangerous in hospitals.

Numbers 1 and 7 are particular pet peeves of mine.  Really, if we didn’t use 90% of our brains, we would have devolved brain matter generations ago.  And I am so sick of busy-body nurses telling me to turn off my mobile phone; they are never in the mood to listen to me explain the faulty physics of the premise.  Same goes for gas stations that are afraid of phones’ “static discharge” near the gas pumps: complete rubbish.

Want some comedy about this nonsense?  Check this out: