By John "Birdman" Bryant
"Medicine continues to be the most dangerous business in America, with tens of thousands slaughtered and turned into invalids and hundreds of thousands injured regularly. ... doctors and drugs [are] the fourth leading cause of death in America ..." --Bruce West, MD, Health Alert, May 2000: 1
Stephen Barrett MD hosts a site on the Worldwide Web called Quackwatch, whose purpose is to promote the idea that alternative medicine -- a very large class of therapies and approaches to health which includes everything from meditation, quigong, massage and acupuncture to diet, exercise, hormone injections and nutritional supplements -- is quackery or mostly quackery, and that therefore conventional medicine is "the only way to go". Dr Barrett is associated with the organization CSICOP, publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer, whose principal purpose is to debunk claims of "fringe science", particularly parapsychology, astrology, UFOs and anything possessing New Age associations. While I am sympathetic with hard-nosed science as against New Age wiftiness, I have seen many instances in which those acting with the imprimatur of CSICOP have lied, fudged and dissembled their way to "proving" their claims in a sort of modern version of antinomianism in which any act is said to be justified as long as it promotes conventional science. For this reason I have been a harsh critic of CSICOP over the years, particularly in the essay "A Skeptical Look at the Skeptical Inquirer" in my book Bryant's Law and Other Broadsides and in a complete section of critical essays on CSICOP in my book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Religion, Science and Superstition But Were Afraid to Ask Because You Thought You'd Be Cursed, Excommunicated and Denied Your Research Grant. While none of these criticisms has dealt directly with Dr Barrett or CSICOP's "medical skepticism", Quackwatch seem clearly to fit the mold of CSICOP's extremist position, as a spot check of its great variety of articles on alternative medical practices seems to indicate. (The site also contains -- to Dr Barrett's great credit -- a lengthy selection of letters written to him concerning his website, many of them harshly and substantively critical -- an indication of both Dr Barrett's confidence in his work and his honesty in approaching his subject.) The Quackwatch website, then, may be seen as a good representation of conventional medical opinion against the assault of alternative therapies. Its significance, however, is that not only does it fail in its intention of making alternative medicine out to be quackery, but in fact it inadvertently makes the case that conventional medicine is itself quackery.
To begin, let me first say that there are probably many statements on the Quackwatch website concerning specific alternative therapies which are both uncomplimentary and true, tho my spot reading in conjunction with my meager knowledge of many of these therapies would not allow me to hazard a general judgment as to the range and utility of these criticisms. (I can say, however, that anyone considering undergoing these therapies is well-advised to read these criticisms, albeit with a granulum sali.) However, on the one subject which I know most about -- fluoridation -- the posted essay was seriously uninformed, thus suggesting a low level of scholarship for the remainder. In particular, the fluoridation piece contains no mention of several subjects which would seem to be de rigueur for any unbiased treatment. Here are the particulars:
* There was no discussion of the major criticism of fluoridation familiar to most anti-fluoridationists, Dr John Yianoyiamis' book Fluoride: The Aging Factor. Especially important is that Dr Y, as he is often referred to, was responsible for unearthing government data which health bureaucrats attempted to cover up, and which demonstrated significant evidence contrary to the government line of fluoride as "safe and effective".
* There was no mention of the long-known fact that fluoride is a waste product of aluminum refining which the industry is only too happy to get rid of by selling for the purpose of fluoridating water supplies. (Industry influence on government policies is not unknown.)
* There was no mention of the recently-discovered fact that the government position on fluoride as "safe and effective" was heavily influenced by the desire to cover up the ill-effects of early nuclear weapons research in which the use of uranium hexafluoride caused serious fluoride poisoning to atomic workers (Joel Griffiths & Chris Bryson, "Toxic Secrets, Fluoride & the A-Bomb Program, Nexus, April-May 1998: 11ff).
* There was no mention of the fact that the government has recently required the application of warning labels on fluoride toothpaste.
It should be noted that, while the website contains a statement from alternative medicine guru Dr Linus Pauling in which he recommends the fluoridation of water supplies, the statement is suspect because it is some three decades old, and thus may not account for information which has come to light since that time.
But whatever the validity of the criticisms of anti-fluoridationists and other alternativists, my major objections to the Quackwatch website -- and to medical establishmentarians generally -- are not so much factual as they are philosophical. My most important objections are to Dr Barrett's claim that conventional medicine has been "scientifically proved" while alternative medicine has not. Barrett's claim is objectionable on several grounds:
* Medical establishmentarians usually object to alternative medical procedures because they have not been shown to be effective in double-blind trials (ie, trials where neither administering investigators nor subjects know who is getting the treatment being tested and who is getting a placebo). But the ugly fact is that most conventional medical procedures have also not been proved in double-blind trials.
* Most scientific research is government-funded, with the result that "scientific" conclusions are often skewed or suppressed for political purposes. The case of fluoride has already been mentioned; the case of the politically-useful "threat" of global warming has recently been documented; the case of the air-conditioning refrigerant freon -- whose DuPont patents recently expired -- having a "significant impact" in causing the "ozone hole" (which is probably a perfectly natural phenomenon) has been widely debunked; and the case of the politically-correct AIDS "disease" -- cobbled together from some 30 different diseases, and not even satisfying the Koch postulates -- has been shown to be a complete hoax (see Brian Ellison's Why We Will Never Win the War on AIDS or Peter Duesberg's more recent book Inventing the AIDS Virus). Examples of the governmental Midas touch which have had less than sterling results could easily be multiplied beyond necessity.
* Science acknowledges the existence of the "placebo effect", in which supposedly-ineffective drugs or procedures are able to cure fully one-third of those who "have faith" in them, ie, ineffective cures are successful in curing one-third of the time. But if something can cure one-third of the time, it is hardly "ineffective". Which means that if science acknowledges the "effectiveness" of the placebo effect, then it cannot logically object to those who seek cures based on this effectiveness, even if it is perhaps not as effective as some other approach.
* While Dr Barrett and his physician colleagues claim to be scientific, they almost universally ignore the most important single fact relevant to their profession: That disease is mostly a product of lifestyle. Indeed, they seem caught in the folds of a Pasteurian time-warp which mandates the equation "disease = microorganismal infection", when alternative medicine has based many of its treatments on the fact that microorganisms will have little effect on a body with a robust resistance -- a resistance which is largely the product of diet and exercise. It is, of course, in the conventional medical practitioner's financial interest to push pills rather than lifestyle, since those who take pills often need a doctor's help to recover from their effects (see below), while those who begin to practice a healthy lifestyle rarely need to see a physician again. Conventional medicine, then, may be scientific in the narrow sense of drug tests and measured doses, but it is not scientific in the broad sense of providing sound remedies for disease.
* Contrary to Dr Barrett (and, for that matter, contrary to almost universally-held opinion), there is simply no such thing as "scientific proof". In part this is because scientific "proofs" are primarily inductive rather than deductive, and hence ipso facto can be only probable rather than certain. The main problem, however, is that, in every scientific experiment, only a limited number of variables can be selected for study among an infinite universe of possibilities, and thus some (and perhaps many) variables which may have a significant impact on the experiment may be excluded. Science, therefore, is fundamentally dependent on the scientist's intuition as to what variables to include, how long to carry on the experiment, and similar facts which completely alter the picture of scientific activity from the commonly-held one of rigor and precision to that of putzing and schmoozing. And it will be a cold day in Hell before conventional science will ever seriously consider the possibility that the experimenter may influence the outcome of the experiment (the "sheep and goats phenomenon" of parapsychology) recently discussed in that hotbed of pro-scientific conventionalism The Skeptical Inquirer by the very unconventional English scientist Rupert Sheldrake ("Could Experimenter Effects Occur in the Physical and Biological Sciences?", May-June 98).
* The "scientific proof" which Dr Barrett and his ilk insist on for alternative medicine is only peripherally relevant to the ultimate issue: Should person x take therapy y for condition z? That is, since human beings share many common characteristics, a conventional scientific study of therapy y on a given set of persons having condition z yields information as to the likelihood of the therapy's usefulness to anyone else with condition z, but the ultimate "scientific test" as far as person x is concerned is for him to use it and see whether it works for him. But Dr Barrett and most other supporters of conventional medicine and science are opposed to this form of science, possibly because their pusillanimous perspectives keep them from recognizing it as science, their professional jealousies make them wish to keep science in the hands of the epopts who monopolize knowledge and reap the financial rewards, and/or because their totalitarian mindsets make government fiat preferable to individual choice. Of course they always describe their position in such eelemosynary terms as "protecting the consumer" and "exposing fraud", but who is better at judging the relative risks and rewards of a therapy than the person who reaps the rewards or suffers the consequences, and by what right does Dr Barrett and his ilk seek to take this choice away? Perhaps Dr Barrett likes Big Brother as his nanny, but in my view and that of more than a few people who have experience in the matter, some of the most frightening words in the world are "We're from the government and we're here to help you."
We suggested earlier that conventional medicine might well be accused of quackery, and thus that Dr Barrett and his CSICOP colleagues might first consider cleaning house before they start digging into other people's dirt. There are two important reasons why conventional medicine may reasonably said to be quackery:
* While conventional medicine is the best we have in most cases for repairing physical injuries such as broken bones and severed arteries, it is virtually useless for such degenerative diseases as cancer, arthritis, and heart disease; and for those degenerative diseases where there is actually a treatment, such as diabetes, this treatment often results in severe complications (diabetics often suffer cardiovascular problems from the use of insulin). In fact, conventional medicine is actually worse than useless, since the treatments given for degenerative diseases -- particularly cancer -- generally leave the patient much sicker than he was originally. And yet oncology, rheumatology and cardiology are all standard specialties in conventional medicine, thereby implying that their practitioners have valid therapies to offer when in fact they do not. If this is not quackery, then there ain't no such animal.
* According to a letter in Dr Barrett's website, there are more than 100,000 Americans who die every year from conventional medical therapies -- technically referred to as iatrogenic (physican-caused) or nosocomial (hospital-caused) conditions. (In comparison, 400,000 die from smoking, 100,000 from alcohol, and 41,000 from automobile accidents, while only 1,500 die from handgun accidents, and only 8,000 die from recreational drug use (probably due mostly to street impurities), which is another way of saying that using illegal drugs is a lot less risky than using legal ones, and that pushers are a lot less lethal than doctors.) But how many persons die from alternative therapies? While I have no statistics on the matter, it is obvious that most alternative therapies simply do not have the potential to cause great bodily harm, let alone death, so the answer is virtually none. Clearly, conventional medicine is dangerous to the health -- far more dangerous than such conventional bugbears as drugs, handguns and drunk drivers. But what is really important here is that, while Dr Barrett and his comrades claim that conventional medicine heals and alternative medicine is a fraud, the statistics I have just cited make clear that the truth is exactly the opposite.
The first principle of the Hippocratic Oath, which most physicians take upon
graduation from medical school, is "First, do no harm". Clearly Dr
Barrett and the other myrmidons of conventional medicine have not only violated
that oath, but resound with the hypocritical oaths of "Fraud!", "Charlatan!"
and "Quack!" which they direct against a new breed of healers who
are both displacing them (more than half of all visits to healing professionals
in 1997 were to alternative therapists -- a clear indication that conventional
medicine simply does not work) and demonstrating for all the world to see that
it is precisely conventional physicians to whom those oaths apply.