Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine

by Simon Singh

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

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Before I read this book my opinion was that “alternative medicine” was largely “trick” and only occasionally “treatment”, so much so that I almost didn’t bother to read it. But since I struggle to explain that viewpoint to others sometimes I thought I’d have a read and see which bits were actually useful.

The authors look into four branches of alternative medicine in detail. Before reading I thought that homeopathy was a load of rubbish (though only since realising in recent years that this involves supposedly making medicines stronger by diluting them, before that I thought it was a synonym for “natural” medicine and I suspect many people have similar delusions); I didn’t know much about acupuncture other than I’ve heard it recommended by doctors so I thought it would have some effect; I knew chiropractic was something to do with backs but chiropractors claim they can cure other things too which I was dubious about; and finally herbal medicine, which I thought would turn out to be genuine natural drugs.

Well, after reading I am a bit disappointed that what I thought was my sceptical viewpoint turned out to be a bit rosy! Homeopathy is definitely rubbish as expected, acupuncture pretty much too - the authors leave the possibility that it may have an effect on (IIRC) nausea and pain open but it is basically unproved either way and if it does have an effect then it’s very minor. Herbal medicines are a jumble, mostly nonsense with a few mostly well known exceptions like St Johns Wort for mild depression. The most surprising bit for me was the evidence that chiropractors, whilst in general having some effect on back problems and none on anything else, actually employ methods that can cause strokes when manipulating necks. I will be steering clear of them!

So, the summary is that the vast majority of the effect of alternative medicine is down to the placebo effect, and the bit I hadn’t really thought about before is that you also get a placebo effect when using a conventional medicine in addition to its pharmaceutical action. And much of the problem with alternative medicines is that they lead people to reject conventional medicine for no good reason.

I feel like I’m rewriting the book here…there are lots of things I would like to mention but will stop here. It’s an easy read and well worth it if you want to find out a bit more about any of these “treatment”s and why they (mostly) don’t work.