“Anti-GMO,” “essential oils,” “gluten-free,” “detox cleanses,” “homeopathic…” the buzzwords abound, permeating internet blogs and shaping the vernacular of today’s resurgence in so-called alternative medicine. But what explains this growing infatuation? And how, if at all, should scientists respond to it? Insofar as the preference for alternative medicine signifies a rejection of conventional medicine, it also connotes a tacit rejection of the scientific basis upon which modern medicine is built. Therefore, the matter clearly merits attention from scientists who should feel duty-bound to make the case for empirical, allopathic medicine. This is especially true for ECRs, who will no doubt encounter it frequently among fellow millennials.
Most readers can probably recall an encounter with a friend or acquaintance promulgating less-than-scientific nutritional views. In one of my own, I was confronted with the claim: microwaving food causes cancer. Despite my best arguments to the contrary (something like, “show me peer-reviewed studies!”) my friend remained unpersuaded.
All the same, little harm is done when a person decides to stop microwaving their dinner. But real concerns arise when these behaviors are taken to extremes, e.g., using garlic instead of chemotherapy, or refusing to vaccinate children. These scenarios illustrate how dismissing science-based medicine can result in genuine harm if trying alternative “remedies” prevents or delays legitimate treatment. How should biomedical scientists address this unsettling trend? And could they be at all to blame?
Firstly, what exactly is Alternative Medicine?
A straightforward definition for “alternative medicine” is a bit dubious, as it encompasses a diversity of treatments and practices. Supporters might call it a group of therapies which have been historically ignored or denied by conventional healthcare. More accurately, it can be described as a collection of unorthodox medical approaches all defined by a singular feature: the absence of supporting evidence. This is either because they’ve been factually disproven or because they currently lack adequate proof (often because they’re not amenable to experimental inquiry).
Nevertheless, alternative medicine is flourishing. In 1970, 14% of individuals disclosed using alternative medicine; by 2002 it was over 34%. Today, some estimates peg that number at 40%. This rise might not be surprising to users of social media, where clickbait testimonials for magnetic therapy and herbal remedies litter newsfeeds. But, considering the medical advances these decades witnessed, this uptick is remarkable, even paradoxical. After all, if modern medicine is better today than it has ever been, why are discredited alternatives becoming more—and not less—prevalent?
Acclaim for scientific medicine historically
Past generations can bear witness to the ubiquity of Polio into the 20th century, when practically everyone knew a kid in their neighborhood stricken with the virus. So when Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine in 1953, it launched him into the stratosphere of acclaim. Or consider Edward Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine, leading then President Thomas Jefferson to compose a historic letter praising him for having “erased from the calendar of human afflictions one of its greatest….mankind can never forget that you have lived.” Compare this to present day, where doubt about vaccine safety is openly discussed in the highest ranks of government. Sadly, it seems like virtual invisibility of history’s worst viral scourges in today’s world has left us incredulous about the seriousness of the health risks they pose.
So why is any of this happening? Is there something the science or medical community has done to invite dissatisfaction with modern medicine? Surely one source is the continued inability of mainstream approaches to effectively treat many diseases. When an oncologist tells a cancer patient they have 2 months to live, it’s hardly inconceivable when they seek out unorthodox remedies like hyperbaric therapy or energy healing in desperation. Moreover, for most of human history, physician interventions did more harm than good . Although this reversed around the 19th century, iatrogenic harm and hospital-acquired infections can still make someone worse off from having sought out medical care. Consequently, distrust for medical professionals and skepticism of medicine in general lingers.
Another reason for alternative medicine’s appeal is simply that patients may believe it truly works—the placebo effect can indeed be a powerful motivator. However, once these nontraditional views take hold they’re hard to dislodge. Responding with insensitive criticism and ridicule is almost certainly counterproductive; by dismissing their beliefs as infantile fantasies or medieval quackery, we only belittle the person, pushing them further away. Nevertheless, a hostile posture toward alternative medicine and its adherents is not uncommon in medical science—and largely to its detriment.
Sowing doubt for pseudoscience
Bearing all this in mind, what are biomedical professionals to do? For one, more faithfully communicating the superior value, safety and benefits of their craft. In the pursuit of publications and funding, it’s easy to overlook the importance of communicating research to the community. Additionally, to be more persuasive, arguments against alternative medicine and its pseudoscientific basis mustn’t patronize those holding such beliefs. In the end, espousing the superior methodology and credibility of empirical medical science will win over most folks. For the rest, snake oil will have to do.
Featured image: Wiping out polio. From NPR.org. Obtained via google images under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license
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Holly Strawbridge (February 20, 2013) Going gluten-free just because? Here’s what you need to know. Harvard Health website
Dara Mohammadi (December 5, 2014) You can’t detox your body. It’s a myth. So how do you get healthy? The Guardian
The Economist Explains (2014). Why homeopathy is nonsense The Economist
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