Note: This writeup was written as a response to a now-deceased writeup questioning why anyone would believe in alternative medicine. This writeup aims to state why people believe. I am not a believer in most alternative therapies to any large extent (though, as I indicate below, my confidence in mainstream Western medicine has taken some hits).

(Warning: This rant is guaranteed to offend everyone, from big government types to big capitalism types to establishment types to alternative types.)

What should we blame for the rise of these New Age quacks? People want to believe. Who do we blame for them wanting to believe?

I'd start with the FDA and the AMA. I can imagine the look of horror crossing people's faces about now. Them? But they're behind legitimate medical practice! Exactly my point, is what I will say. Both the FDA and the AMA are reactionary when it comes to innovation in medicine (with the possible exception of when big corporations have some new wonder drug). They serve to "defend" us from alternative medicine quacks by protecting their own. They serve to protect us from the flaws of ideas they don't agree with by protecting us from all ideas they don't agree with.

You don't believe me. I understand. Let me give you a few examples: The discovery of the truth about gastrointestinal ulcers, the autism-vaccination connection, and my younger brother's experience with a chronic headache.

Gastrointestinal Ulcers

It was believed for some time that the major causes of ulcers were spicy foods, stress, alcohol, and a few other lifestyle factors. However, in 1982 a Dr. Barry Marshall in Australia, after finding that conventional treatments offered no relief, discovered that many of them were caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. He managed to treat stomach ulcers with antibiotics -- in fact treating himself after he consumed some H. pylori in order to provide a first demonstration because he could not gain funding for a study. Even after managing to demonstrate with a study that antibiotics were an effective treatment, how long did it take for this to become a standard and accepted treatment for most stomach ulcers?

Over a decade. His studies were denounced, despite results and increasingly large amounts of research supporting them. Eventually the tide turned, though the knowledge took many years to reach general practitioners.

My brother's story

When my brother was in middle school, he found himself with a chronic headache. This headache was so bad that it prevented him from concentrating on school work, let alone the raucous environment of middle school. Eventually, it became so bad that my mother checked him into a hospital. What did they decide was the problem? My brother was depressed. The evidence was that my brother had a headache, he did not have a brain tumor, and he wasn't social with his loud TV watching hospital roommate (who never really seemed to care about anything except watching TV). My brother was told that "feelings are like arrows that bounce around inside you and when they hit things, they make them hurt". (Update: Re-reading this after getting another C!, doesn't this bit about feelings being like arrows sound rather New Age itself?)

After a week of this, my mother became angry with the doctors and removed my brother from the hospital. After a talk with a new pediatrician and tests to ensure my brother's early childhood allergies had not returned, my mother took him to a chiropractor. After two visits, my brother was fine. The problem turned out to be a minor injury sustained when learning self defense at the karate school my brother attended. After finding out where the problem was, my brother recalled the sharp pain he felt at the time and forgot about.

So, why do I think people want to believe?

I think they want to believe because it gives them hope and because they have seen that quackery is not limited to those outside the establishment. Why should you believe your doctor if he gives you wrong advice? What if the "real" doctors don't seem to even listen to you?

The AMA has come out against patients being able to view their doctor's "record". They would prefer that you not know that the surgeon you are going to has had patients repeatedly die on the table or experience no relief. This is because they act as a union.

The FDA, as stated above, seems to have a process that reminds me of the US Patent Office. Large companies can get things approved faster, while small companies occasionally languish. Not all claims for new drugs are true -- but isn't this true for all new drugs?


References:
http://www.tdh.state.tx.us/news/acc1016.htm and http://www.newstimes.com/archive98/sep0298/hec.htm (used to freshen up my knowledge on the topic of ulcers)

To be honest, I haven't touched on the fact that what is considered New Age is a very fuzzy line -- what would you trust? Acupuncture? (which even the AMA is admitting some value to) Herbs? (Admittedly, a lot of our medicines came from plants originally.) Crystal Healing? (Ok, I won't defend this one).
Update: Ripped out the bit about autism and vaccines, as it was written more when things were just uncertain enough...
I don't know that the medical establishment has anything fundamental against so-called "New Age" cures or "alternative medicine." The one thing that the Western medical establishment does crave is proof.

Ask any reputable physician today about the benefits of marijuana use in certain medical conditions. They'll tell you that the active ingredient, THC, has proven to be an effective anti-nausea agent. Twenty years ago, doctors would have told you that there was no scientific evidence for any such benefit, and they would have been right. But today, the numbers have been run and the jury is in.

This doesn't mean that any random cure is going to work, and they just haven't done the research yet. The only thing doctors (and other health professionals, to be fair) have to go on is what's already been studied.

This does NOT necessarily mean that "traditional" medicines, such as herbs, work. In these cases, you may have a lot of anecdotal evidence for something's effects, but this may be deceptive. It's been shown in psychological studies, for example, that people think they're much more likely to die in airplane crashes than is borne out by statistics. Why? Because everyone's heard of someone--a relative, friend, friend of a friend, etc.) who's died in one. This is a prime example of why anecdotal evidence is unreliable. It MAY be true, but more rigorous testing should be done.

It helps to keep an open mind about these things, but it also pays to keep a healthy skepticism. Research any treatment you're considering thoroughly, and don't rely on the Internet alone. Visit a number of practicioners and ask about the numbers. Doctors today are much more informed about alternative cures than ever before (since they get asked so frequently), and you might be surprised about what they have to say.

If you want the skinny on a good deal of alternative approaches, I recommend www.quackwatch.com. It's pretty heavily skewed toward the "Western" approach, but its writeups are thorough and well-referenced, and it will be able to help separate the scams from those treatments with possible (even if unproven) benefits.

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