The most common reaction I get from people when I tell them about the lack of evidence supporting alternative medicine like homeopathy, spiritual healing, herbal remedies and so on is, “What’s the harm”? Well, granted, homeopathy doesn’t actually contain any active ingredients so you cannot overdose on it. This does not mean the practice is not harmful.
Firstly, and most importantly, the only types of ‘cure’ or ‘medicine’ that actually assist with any known illnesses are those which have been scientifically tested. That’s not an arrogant statement; it’s a statement of fact. Anything which may have fallen under the category of “alternative medicine” which has since been tested and shown to work then gets re-labelled “medicine”. Medicine, science, evidence, clinical trials and peer review are not dirty words. Ignorance of this fact is what causes the most harm. People often think that because something is labelled as a “natural alternative” then it must have some efficacy. In some cases, the absence of using ‘real’ medicine altogether in favour of the ‘alternative’ can lead to the illness worsening, or in some cases, death.
The only evidence for the usefulness of homeopathy in particular is not really evidence for homeopathy, but for the intense (and scientifically acknowledged) placebo effect it can provoke. The placebo effect is amazing, and should not be disregarded. The human mind and body has a fantastic ability to promote its own self-healing, but in cases where the body cannot heal itself, the placebo effect loses usefulness, and therefore so does any homeopathic remedy’s effect. The body needs real medicine to help many diseases, not just a sugar pill.
There’s nothing new about the human desire to seek out alternatives and magic cures. Even very bright and educated people have succumbed to the fallacies of alternative medicine’s allure. A list of well known ‘victims’ of alternative therapies and fake healing scams can be shown here, with links to other articles about them. Celebrities might bring attention to the problem, but it does not really show how bad the issue is. Too many celebrities counter this argument by promoting woo and nonsense, which only serves to exacerbate the problem. The public are too quick to listen to the point of view of people like Prince Charles, Deepak Chopra and Madonna. To truly understand how serious the effects of ‘fake’ medicine and healing are one really has to look at the facts, and try to put aside belief in the (albeit seductive) supernatural. There is no quick fix.
So, what is the harm? Well, you can already see the harm of avoiding proper medical treatment, as the body’s natural defences and the placebo effect cannot help with everything. The other problem is when the treatment you’re taking actually makes you worse. There is so much evidence for this that I cannot list it all here. A few examples include the adverse effects of spinal manipulation, the dangers of ear candles, the poisoning caused by ayurvedic treatments, death by acupuncture, and the diseases caused by various Chinese herbal ‘medicines‘.
In summary, my aim is not to scare you or tell you what to do. It’s merely to ask you to think before you take something on face value. Don’t listen to unqualified people who say they can heal you with ‘alternative’ therapies when the only proven treatment is actual medical help. Think critically, look at the evidence, and dismiss the woo merchants who make money by selling you magic beans or the fraudulent practices of many ‘complementary’ therapists.
- “What’s the Harm”
- Field guide to critical thinking
- Placebo effect
- How Quackery harms cancer patients
- Logical fallacies
- Ear Candle Scam