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Time to start calling “alternative medicine” by its proper name?

with 13 comments

Via Ben Goldacre’s Twitter feed comes this story from the Sydney Morning Herald:

THE parents of a nine-month-old girl who died from septicemia were responsible for their baby’s death because they shunned conventional medical treatment for her eczema in favour of homeopathic remedies, a court heard yesterday.

A homeopath, Thomas Sam, 42, and his wife, Manju Sam, 36, are standing trial in the NSW Supreme Court charged with manslaughter by gross criminal negligence after they allegedly resisted the advice of nurses and a doctor to send her to a skin specialist.

Instead Gloria Thomas, who was born in perfect health in July 2001, allegedly died with malnutrition and eczema so severe that her skin broke every time her parents removed her clothes and nappy.

It strikes me that “alternative medicine” is a rather generous term for practices, like homeopathy, which, despite the claims of adherents, have no sound basis in science and no proven benefit beyond the placebo effect.

My dictionary defines medicine as “the science of treating illness”. gives us “any substance or substances used in treating disease or illness…” and “the art or science of restoring or preserving health or due physical condition, as by means of drugs, surgical operations or appliances, or manipulations”. To apply the term “medicine” to practices such as homeopathy which are neither scientific nor have any impact on illness,  therefore seems both inaccurate and misleading.

Within the natural sciences more widely, ideas which claim to be scientific but which rest on deception, dodgy methodology and exaggerated claims, are typically described not as “alternative science” but as “pseudo-science”. In referring to such ideas within medicine, it seems to me that a more useful and descriptive phrase than “alternative medicine” would simply be “pseudo-medicine”

“Alternative medicine” may sound like a neutral term, but implicit within it are a set of assumptions which skew the argument in favour of quackery from the outset. The very use of the term “medicine” lends credence to the notion that practices such as homeopathy are a) scientific and b) effective. By describing homeopathy as “alternative medicine” we are helping to couch the discussion in terms of either/or, and with it the idea that to accept an unproven quack remedy over the entire canon of evidence-based-medicine is simply another consumer choice, like selecting a different brand of breakfast cereal.

The supposed dichotomy between “alternative” and “mainstream” medicine can skew the debate even further. For many people – perhaps especially those on the left-wing of politics – these are anything but neutral terms. The term “mainstream” carries very negative connotations, suggesting conformity, mediocrity, and compliance with authority, while the term “alternative” represents the polar opposite. Thus we have the contrast between “alternative” and “mainstream” music (eg. Nirvana vs Britney Spears), “alternative” and “mainstream” media (Indymedia vs the Daily Mail), and “alternative” and “mainstream” politics (eg. Greens vs Conservatives).

Anecdotal evidence can obviously only get you so far, but among the people I know who embrace “alternative medicine” and take it seriously, I’ve been struck by the extent to which they see it as a lifestyle choice, fitting in seamlessly with their political views, musical tastes, and media preferences.  It seems to me that one way to tackle this problem at its root would be to start challenging the very terms on which the debate is  being conducted, and stop accepting “alternative medicine” as a valid description of toxic, pseudo-medicinal ideas like homeopathy.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 5, 2009 at 10:44 am

13 Responses

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  1. So, do we call it pseudo-medicine? Does that work?

    Andy Lewis

    May 5, 2009 at 11:18 am

    • That would be my preference, I think, or something similar. “Alternative medicine” definitely gives too much away…

      Richard Wilson

      May 5, 2009 at 12:00 pm

  2. Trouble is, some alternative medicines work, ie. Herbal Medicines some definitely have an effect. Have you ever drunk Senapod Tea ??

    Agreed some aromatherapy and homeopathy leave doubt in my mind, but used alongside a docotors prescription or with his permission, can work wonders, especially from a mental health view point.

    Valerie Reffold

    May 5, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    • Valarie: This is the problem – people using ‘alternative’ medicine alongside normal medicine and then people crediting the ‘alternative’ medicine with the recovery.


      May 5, 2009 at 12:58 pm

  3. Valerie,

    The problem is that “Alternative” Medicine is a very broad umbrella. I am not that familiar with Senna Pod, but a quick look on the oracle of possibly dodgy info(wikipedia) suggests that it is a natural laxative. Has this product been tested or processed to produce a standard dosage? There are reports of children dying due to being given too much.

    Asparin is or was a natural medicine developed from willow bark if I am not mistaken. Now take too much of it and it can cause serious side effects, which is why there is standardized usage and dosage guidelines borne out of years of continued studies.

    Now one may ask what’s the point of worrying about placebo’s when it may compliment the health of the patient. Well if they were producing bottles of “health pills” for $2-3 maybe not that much, however when you have detox boxes and miracle patches selling from $30 – 100 a pop then a think there is a duty to educate the public, that they are being taken advantage of by unscrupulous companies.

    That’s not to say Pharmaceutical companies haven’t had their fair share of scandal. Bayer the makers of Aspirin appear to have knowingly infected patients with HIV in the 80’s through blood products that were improperly screened.

    The thing to remember is that whether its Pharma or Homeopathy these companies are commercial entities, with commercial imperatives.

    Sean the Blogonaut

    May 5, 2009 at 1:07 pm

  4. Feel herbal medicine making a come back in some fields of medicine, but in major illness its better to see a docotor.

    The thing is all medicines have side effects, even main stream medication.. ie.Asprin can cause stomach bleeding, paracetamol can cause constipation amongst other things, and they are just the simple medications, its head you win tails i loose situation really.

    Valerie Reffold

    May 5, 2009 at 3:53 pm

  5. Well, homeopathic pseudo-medicines don’t have side-effects (other than placebo effects)– because they don’t have any active ingredients.

    It’s true though that not everything that falls (or could fall) under the ‘alternative medicine’ label is as pointless as homeopathy.

    Any ideas for an intermediate label?


    May 5, 2009 at 6:55 pm

  6. “This does not work”

    Valerie Reffold

    May 6, 2009 at 7:19 pm

  7. […] evidence behind chiropractic. Nor, until recently, did I know very much about this branch of pseudo-medicine. But by bringing this case, the BCA has ensured that thousands of people now know that this is an […]

  8. It is worth repeating this link:

    (which I have to give credit to Orac @ Respectful Insolence for bringing to many people’s attention!)

    Some of the other posts on that blog are decidedly entertaining as well!


    May 7, 2009 at 2:22 pm

  9. Sometimes you get to the clinic, and they don’t have the cure for the ailment that you are suffering from; sometimes the only way to find cure is to go to the old man next door whos got this strange thing that he does with leaves and a keg of oil

    Maynard Sewell

    December 13, 2009 at 12:03 pm

  10. Very informative, Thanks.


    June 17, 2010 at 2:06 pm

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