Alternative Medicine: Take 2

In my previous post, I had outlined some basic methods to distinguish good medicine from barking mad therapies. In this post, let’s dig deeper to see how the tricksters abuse science to confound lay-people.

Chain of Evidence
First, I have to debunk some ill-conceived notions about science & formal medicine. Science does not dismiss unproven healing methods, ideas or experiences right away. It systematically looks for evidence in an unbiased manner – and then, based on the outcome, chooses to support (or oppose) the proposed idea. Most importantly, it also tries to reproduce the reported success of the healing method – after understanding the conditions under which it manifests itself.

Science is not just based on experiments & personal observation. Several scientists have predicted outcomes thru Math, theories & repeating patterns – well before any evidence could be found. Mendeleev predicted the characteristics of several elements before they were discovered. Einstein dreamed up his Theories of Relativity first, proved it next. It was possible for him to do that because – he knew all the facts & principles leading to it.

Which brings us to “Chain of Evidence”, one of the corner-stones of science. Every new earth-shaking theory is like a chain of concepts, proven data points or experiments. For the final link in the chain (i.e., the new theory) to be correct, every link in the chain should be correct. How can we ensure that every chain in our reasoning is correct? By relying on scientific methods.

Quacks shouldn’t be taken seriously because – They are unable prove any/most of the links in their thinking. Their basic premises veer far from scientifically accepted principles. It is no surprise then that their theories are heckled by established scientific institutions the world over. They only seem to succeed in the public domain because – the general populace has very little knowledge on science. This means the charlatans have a field day & continue their vaudeville act.

Science is “Too Narrow”
I have a problem with squawking popinjays that claim their pet theories are 100% scientific, but when pressed for proof – throw a hissy fit, accuse everyone of being narrow minded & start ranting about how science is useless to understand the nuances in life. They may also say that science hasn’t “caught up” with them. Possibly & I hope it never does.

This double-speak gives me conniption fits. I just wish they’ll answer some simple questions, so that I can stop the woozy feeling in my head.

1. Folks – Your claims are either scientific or not. Make up your mind. Which is it?

2. If you think science is inadequate to explain your technique, why do you use scientific terms to explain it?

3. If you truly believe in what you say – Why do you resist all attempts by the scientific community to independently theorize, conceptualize, measure or analyze your claims & report findings?

4. If you think science is ill equipped to prove the veracity of you claims – How in the blazes did you conclude that your claims are scientific in the 1st place?

And finally – Narrating one anecdote after another is called “hearsay” – its not the same as providing verifiable supporting evidence.

Appeal to Authority
Since most people are not savvy about science, quacks get their attention easily by invoking the names of authority figures. Check if they make references to Tesla, Bohr, Farraday or other dead scientists – who can’t even whimper their protests from their grave. Such “Dead Scientists Societies” are very useful, since even lay-people know their names.

Like most crooks, quacks are getting smarter & smarter. Sadly, the same can’t be said about their victims. Tricksters usually play “Star Trek” by “cloaking” their shlock in scientific jargon like “Energy Fields”, “Molecular Clusters” & “Quantum Vibrations”. They’ll explain all these concepts admirably, but fail to explain scientifically how any of them have a bearing on the pseudo-scientific geegaw that they are selling. By juxtaposing their ideas with valid science, these nutters hope that a smidgen of the respect you have for physics will rub off on the sleaze that they are selling. They also hope fervently that this new-found respect will make you swallow all your questions & start believing them.

Excusez moi, but me thinks that it stinks πŸ˜‰

Let me illustrate with some scintillating giberish that I’ve encountered. “During healing, the brain wave patterns of practitioner and receiver pulse in unison with the earth’s magnetic field, known as the Schumann Resonance. During these moments, the biomagnetic field of the practitioners’ hands is at least 1000 times greater than normal, and not as a result of internal body current”. Well, that’s illuminating πŸ™‚

Let me clutch my sides for a sec – I’m laughing so hard they are about to fall off. First of all, Schumann Resonance is “Electromagnetic” – not just “Magentic”: the berks can’t spell “Electromagnetic” yet?? πŸ˜€ Second, its a standing-wave that will manifest itself only when a lightning strike excites the cavity between the atmosphere & the earth’s crust. Third, its not some magical energy field that can be “channelized” by people – unless you want to get hit by a lightning & join the party. And lastly, maybe I’ve missed it – did you catch them providing any evidence on their healing method’s mystical connection with Schumann resonance? Other than hearsay?

See what I mean? They’ve successfully distracted people, but they still haven’t proved a thing. They invoked Winfried Schumann, just like our ancestors invoked Mitra, Indra, Dagon or Zeus – to dissuade others from bothering them. They keep lives interesting for skeptics though πŸ™‚

We are Too Stupid
When all else fails, they attack the arguer. This is a logical fallacy called Ad Hominem – Attacking the arguer instead of the argument. As in, they may blame us for being too stupid or too rigid to understand them & the possibilities they weave out of their imaginations.

An acquaintance once told me – “You know, I can heal people over the phone! The scientific (!) principle of Remote Healing relies on both me & the patient having access to the universal energy waves around us”. I sighed – life is indeed trying for a skeptic. I asked him – “No kidding? You can send healing signals pulsating over ether?”. He didn’t see what was coming, so he proudly puffed himself up & said “Yes!”.

I asked him calmly “If that’s true, why don’t you beam your magic pulses to Africa & cure all AIDS victims?”. He went pale & made some inconsequential noises about how Africans should want to get healed first. Nonsense – As if AIDS victims love the company of the HIV virus & can’t bear to be parted from it! I snorted & nearly said “Bollocks!” – but feigned a polite silence. He was already “Checkmated with Candles & Balloons” – as my brother used to say. Well, he also blew raspberries whenever he said that – He was a rare one for capturing the gravity of a situation πŸ˜†

Forewarned is Forearmed! My love for debunking runs deep. I may post a follow-up to this post.


Comments

  1. Quote

    Great post Priya. I think you have completely dismantled the scientific double speak. It is either science or not science – it can’t be science for the naive people and “science hasn’t caught up with us” for the more knowledgeable. I urge every miracle cure maker to undertake a double blind experiment. If it really works, they stand to make exponentially more money than they can ever make by conning people with pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo.

    The sad thing is, thanks to these quacks, some real ancient remedies are cloaked in superstitious rituals. For instance, there is a native medicine family in a village near where i was born, who has a miracle cure for Jaundice. They can cure it in one week tops. Meanwhile the best Allopathy can come up with for Jaundice are palliatives to make the symptoms subside. The native medicine uses a secret recipe made of herbs.

    I wish someone would create a medicine of this, do a formal double blind experiment and get the medicine FDA certified. That entire village will become extraordinarily rich with the money to be made from a potent jaundice cure.

  2. Quote

    It equally pains me to see the lack of scientific temper and the tendency to get carried away by mumbo-jambo. And like you say, we see even top scientists buy into this for a variety of reasons. It is really sad that in the 21st century, argument about science would devolve into a snake pit – the more venomous, the more grisly the bite, that one wins.

  3. Quote
    senthil (subscribed) said February 22, 2008, 1:49 am:

    Good post priya.. It would be better, if those people stop with saying “I have this way for curing.. but i dont know how it works..” ..

    As you said, there are many alternative ways that may give results.. but attempting to explain them with pseudo science is not good.. they can leave the reasoning to the scientist πŸ™‚

    Btw, what do you feel with ancient medical text, which gives some level of reasoning.. eg: 72,000 nerves, 108 Varmas, 7 chakras etc.. should we all reject those things?

    Sukumar,

    There were few such personas giving medicines in our region, like you said… the sad fact is that they dont reveal the secret that much easily.. In most of the tribal villages, there were some vaithiyars, who are expert in herbals and preparing medicines.. now its almost lost..
    Another interesting fact is that these village vaithiyars, dont charge service fees.. they charge only for medicines.. treating for money is considered as sin, on those days..

  4. Quote

    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, if people who have alternative therapies that work – they should try to popularize it, so that the medical community can understand it better. This will benefit more people around the world. There’s no heroism in guarding one’s knowledge – especially if its THE knowledge that may benefit millions.

    As you say, what irks me is how rare a commodity scientific temper is.

  5. Quote

    Senthil – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, the medical community should be permitted to do their job in understanding & codifying natural remedies.

    I don’t know what medical text you are quoting. Whatever the text is, as I’ve mentioned clearly, it should be put to a formal review by medical practitioners – just like any other claim of medical knowledge. What we should do with our review findings is fairly obvious! We embrace what’s right & reject what’s wrong. Or, move what’s wrong to the “History of Medicine”.

    Why should a book be treated any differently?? Writing something up doesn’t legitimize it.

    All ancient people had such theories. As late as the 17th century, people believed there were particles called “phlogistons” which were released during combustion. We don’t learn about phlogistons now because we know that’s incorrect. The good part is, they tried to explain combustion & they advanced a theory to explain it.

  6. Quote

    Priya…AIDS Victims part is hilarious.
    I usually get scared to know that thousands of Americans buy Takara heel patches everyday. One of the most rational persons I met is my uncle Dr Mitra ( He is nephew of Puchalapalli Sundariah(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._Sundarayya), the founder of Communist Party of India. You can imagine how rational he can be:-) ). He usually rubbishes many herbal medicines on the same basis as you. But believes to the core that for many common ailments Acupuncture works very good. He has personally experienced/ experimented many cases. He is also a strong believer of hypnotherapy. He says that even a surgery can be performed without anesthesia if the patient is under hypnosis. I find it very interesting.

  7. Quote

    Vamsi – Thanks for your comment.

    The detox foot patches are a hoot. Works on the “principles” that toxins should be smelly & sludgy! The cheats are very creative, aren’t they?

    Hypnosis though seems to work only on people who are ready to believe it. Acupuncture – for the most part seems to invoke the placebo effect.

  8. Quote
    Ravindran Chellappa said February 25, 2008, 5:16 am:

    A thought provoking and wonderful post!

  9. Quote

    Ravindran – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

  10. Quote

    Totally loved this post! Part 1 was even better, oozing with sarcasm! πŸ™‚

    I don’t have anything to say probably because I have never even tried to read up on any sort of alternative medicine let alone going through with it.

    Well yes actually this one time, maybe when i was in the 5th or 6th or 7th or 8th? Standard (Well you could say my history part of the brain is not all that good) I took homeopathy for tonsillitis. Only thing i can recollect is , i used to be coughing up the whole house and the doctor was hell bent on getting through with an operation of some sorts. But being the courageous person that I was, I probably wept my parents against it; I even convinced them of living with that shit, anything but the operation! I recollect trying some ayurvedic shit somewhere, but anyways finally someone suggested homeopathy to me mom, and I guess it worked. End of story.

  11. Quote

    P.S: Reading up that comment again, I guess I did have something to say. I thought I’d stop with the compliment there, but I guess me dint.

  12. Quote

    Jassi – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, a few years back, everyone was getting their tonsils operated upon. In the West though, doctors frown upon such surgeries. Did Homeopathy work for you, or did the problem disappear on its own? Do you know? Please let me know if you do.

  13. Quote

    Well as far as I can recollect the problem disappeared in a month or so after i tried homeopathy. That is all I can remember but maybe that could also be a coincidence! Now since I was into trying anything but operation, maybe homeopathy just happened to be what I was trying when my body actually fought against the bad guys. The pills were pretty tasty though πŸ˜‰
    From a faith point of view my mother since then gained a little faith in homeopathy, but then i guess they only have cure for problems that anyways fade away with time. The doctor was also acknowledged that once, when my mother went to see him for a hormone problem thing. He actually recommended seeing a specialist of some sorts.

  14. Quote

    Jassi – Yeah, that’s what I thought. My mother wanted to go to a homeopath this week for her diabetes & I practically chewed her head off.

  15. Quote

    Diabetes, Well for starters, the pills are actually sweet πŸ˜›

    I suggest drinking some whiskey, according to my dad that works for him ! He could probably even convince you how his body reacts otherwise.

  16. Quote

    Jassi – Whiskey, huh? My mum makes strange noises like a strangled hen whenever she sees other people drinking πŸ™‚ Fat chance, making her order scotch on the rocks πŸ˜€

    Perhaps your dad should talk to her. From what you say, he might be able to convince her.

  17. Quote

    Priya,

    There are actually a lot more of these strawmans that cheat’s cook up & use all of the time. For a complete list check this YouTube Video out.

    Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3,

  18. Quote

    Dilip – Thanks for your comment.

    And cool – thanks for sending me the links. I plan to post a follow-up once I finish my series on Srilanka – I found Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit too wonderful for words. It has all the logical fallacies used to befuddle the naive. In any case, Sukumar Rajagopal has been asking me to write a series on the Baloney Detection Kit.

  19. Quote

    I came across this report on inoculation done by bengali brahmins few centuries back, to contain small pox.. a westerner’s view of this..

    http://books.google.co.in/books?id=C4lHAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA367&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

    indian treatments were simple, and objective.. and hence it may appear rough or crude.. but it cure better than allopathy in many cases..

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