What’s Wrong—and What’s Right—With Alternative Medicine

Does alternative medicine offer something of value to medical science?

Posted Jun 14, 2014

Homeopathic pet medicine. Photo by Guy P. Harrison

Why do millions prefer unproven alternative medicine products over evidence-based medicines and treatments? Photo: G. Harrison

It is almost too easy for a skeptic to poke holes in the concept of alternative medicine. Little more than defining it does the trick: Alternative medicine is a catch-all term that encompasses all medicines and treatments that have not been confirmed to work by the scientific process. These are unproven and mostly unregulated products. Unsupported by science, they are instead propped up by slick packaging, word-of-mouth, and a cruel exploitation of fear and hope.

The very existence of something called alternative medicine is strange. It’s like having an entire subculture of commercial aviation made up entirely of odd planes that weren’t designed, built, or tested based on known principles of aeronautical engineering and physics. Who in their right mind would pay for a seat on that airline?

"Surrendering important healthcare decisions to hope, fear, irrational biases, advertising, fancy packaging, a good story, or tradition is asking for trouble. But ask they do."

This does not mean all alternative medicines and treatments are worthless, of course. Within such a vast and ever-changing expanse it is reasonable to allow that some might work. But until a given product has successfully run the gauntlet of a double-blind test, how can anyone sensibly select a winner from among so many losers? And why would anyone want to defend and promote the general concept of alternative medicine when by definition this category includes all junk and fraudulent products that are not evidence based? It’s like saying some accused criminals are innocent therefore all criminals are good.

Exploring alternative medicine can be amusing given the abundance of outrageous and hilarious claims made. (Care to purchase a hologram energy bracelet, anyone?) But don’t take this issue for a joke. It’s a moral issue of the highest order. I have seen firsthand in numerous societies, both rich and poor, how good people are manipulated, robbed, and endangered by this stuff. Surrendering important healthcare decisions to hope, fear, irrational biases, advertising, fancy packaging, a good story, or tradition is asking for trouble. But ask they do.

Even during times of global economic hardships, alternative medicine believers spend vast sums of money on products that almost certainly do not work. When weak skepticism intersects with alternative medicine misery and tragedy often result. The cure for this plague is critical thinking. People—especially young people—need to be taught, encouraged, and inspired to think independently and to demand evidence.  

“But I felt better after taking it,” is a common defense. Yes, there is no doubt alternative medicine products often make people feel better even if the medicine does nothing directly for the illness or injury. This is because the placebo effect is a real phenomenon. But it happens with evidence-based medicine too. Alternative medicine does not have exclusive rights to the placebo effect so it’s not a meaningful advantage or selling point. If a particular alternative medicine really worked better than a placebo then somebody should be able to demonstrate that. It wouldn’t be that difficult. But then it wouldn’t be called alternative medicine anymore. As skeptics have been pointing out for years, medicine that works is simply called “medicine”.

Through interviews and casual conversations in many societies I have learned that personal experience accounts for a lot of the confidence people place in alternative medicine. It turns out that most of us are not very good at analyzing and assessing illness and recovery. For example, it is common for people to take science-based medication and an alternative medicine product simultaneously but then credit only the alternative medicine for any improvements in their condition. I have also learned that many people don’t understand, recognize, or acknowledge just how good the human body is at healing and overcoming illnesses. In most episodes of injury and illness over a lifetime, time is the cure—no magic potions required. Fans of alternative medicine, however, rarely cite time and natural body processes as reasons for recovery once they have purchased and consumed a product. 

Alternative medicine proponents love to point out that science-based medicine is imperfect. This is hardly breaking news. Of course it has problems. The scientific method is by far the best way we have to find out what works but it’s far from foolproof in practice.

So long as human doctors and human scientists are involved, medical science will never be perfect. There remains much to learn about the human body, bacteria, viruses, and so on. Doctors sometimes get the diagnosis wrong. Some treatments come with terrible side effects. Sometimes the cure kills the patient. Hospital environments can be infectious hot zones. Some doctors and researchers are incompetent or unethical. Sometimes profit is placed before quality of care and human lives. But not only is alternative medicine no better in this regard it’s often much worse. At least medical science has substantial regulation and a high regard for evidence going for it. Those who so easily identify imperfection, crooks, incompetence, and dangers in mainstream medicine ought to have no problem recognizing these things in alternative medicine.

Believers might ask themselves how exactly they go about choosing one alternative medicine product over another. If science is not the determining factor in choosing one or two products out of thousands, then what is? Going with the most attractive story, bottle or logo hardly seems like intelligent decision making.

"Despite the fraud, mistakes, misdirected hope, wasted money, and countless lives harmed there is value in alternative medicine that should not be overlooked. Science-based healthcare can learn something from its relentless success and astonishing popularity." 

 From the skeptic’s perspective alternative medicine is nothing more than a swamp of irrational belief, well-intentioned mistakes, and outrageous lies that lure in people who should know better. Those of us who care about the welfare of others should criticize and expose it at every opportunity. But here’s a question many skeptics fail to ask: Is alternative medicine a complete waste of time or can we learn something valuable from it? I think we can.

Despite the fraud, mistakes, misdirected hope, wasted money, and countless lives harmed there is value in alternative medicine that should not be overlooked. Science-based healthcare can learn something from its relentless success and astonishing popularity.

Much of alternative medicine is first and foremost people-centric. It excels at seeing a flesh-and-blood person in need and then catering to her or his wishes and emotional needs. A crackpot cure may do nothing for the sickness but the process of buying into and using alternative medicine often does something for the sick person. Alternative medicine pays attention to the patient/customer in a way science-based healthcare often does not. Yes, failing to deliver on a promise to make an injury or illness better is most important, of course, but we can still give credit where credit is due here. Throughout the wild and whacky universe of alternative medicine one finds sellers and practitioners applying consistent focus on human emotion. Sure, paying so much attention to this and so little to actual medical results is a sleight of hand that distracts from a product’s inability to deliver on its promises. But this doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as insignificant.

When I explore an acupuncture clinic, supplement show, or healthfood store I am usually greeted like an old friend. When I browse around in some pharmacy or grocery store that has sold its soul for a piece of the alternative medicine cash cow, I may first cringe at the lunacy and fraud on display but then I find myself reluctantly admiring the marketing. There is something more than hollow promises and lies at play. The shelves may look like a museum of medical quackery and consumer ripoffs but I see plenty of thoughtful customer care as well.

People who are afraid and hurting are being heard. They are asking and answers are broadcast back to them at the same frequency. Unfortunately they don’t work but they are human answers. Cries have been heard, humanity recognized. Something positive is going on and that should not be diminished. Science-based healthcare too often inspires fear and dread. Alternative medicine routinely inspires hope and good feelings. This is absurd given their respective track records, of course, but it’s the reality.

Instead of exposing and dismissing modern-day shamans and witchdoctors, perhaps science should have absorbed them long ago. Reject the lies and tricks, yes, but respect and incorporate their ability to touch and to soothe the sick. There is an important psychological connection between healers and the sick that has been with us since prehistory. Alternative medicine knows this and fully exploits it. Science-based healthcare, however, largely has failed to recognize and nurture this link.

Modern science-based healthcare wants to find out what specifically is broken as fast as possible, then fix you, bill you and get rid of you. For many people this experience is cold, empty and machine-like. Even when it works one still might feel that something was missing. Science-based medicine should not rely on lying, of course. But it could learn some lessons from alternative medicine and become a much more human-oriented process.

I certainly don’t want to be too critical of medical science. I appreciate the comfort, safety and longer lifespan it has gifted me and billions of other people. To be fair, perhaps science-based healthcare is less warm and friendly than we might like it to be because it has been so busy over the last couple of centuries discovering and confirming treatments that actually work to make people better and save lives. Maybe all this effort left too little time to work on things like image and the emotional needs of patients. Meanwhile, alternative medicine’s end run around the scientific process afforded it plenty of time and energy for such concerns.

Science-based medicine cannot forget that patients are human beings and not automobiles in for an oil change. Yes, many doctors, nurses and hospitals work hard to keep the human being in the equation, but not enough yet. Through learning from alternative medicine and always seeing the whole person in addition to the illness or injury, science-based medicine can do a better job of attracting and keeping the confidence of people who need it. Doing this just might also move us toward a distant but not-impossible time in which all of us know that there is but one sensible direction to turn in times of medical need—toward science.

When everyone finally understands that the scientific process reveals truth and exposes lies better than anything else, no one will ever again place trust in anti-science claims and products. This may be overreaching, perhaps, too much to expect from such a silly species. But it is a goal worth striving for, nonetheless.

-Guy P. Harrison is the author of five books that promote science and reason. His latest book is Think: Why you should question everything


Homeopathic pet medicine. Photo by Guy P. Harrison

Why do millions prefer unproven alternative medicine products over evidence-based medicines and treatments? Photo: G. Harrison

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