Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All

I was first introduced to this book thanks to a review in The TimesSuckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All by Rose Shapiro.

The simplest experiment can have the most disturbing result. Type “cure for cancer alternative medicine” into Google and you get 1,900,000 pages. “Cure for cancer chemotherapy” brings up 1,730,000 results. It is an imperfect comparison but it might lead us to infer, wrongly, that alternative medicine has more to offer the cancer patient than conventional medicine.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a vast industry that has, despite little or no evidence of effectiveness, ensnared one in three of us. In the UK we spend about £4.5 billion on, for example, homoeopathy, reflexology, herbal medicines, chiropractic and acupuncture.

…In fact, Rose Shapiro argues in Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All, we have got ourselves into a right royal mess over CAM. These therapies — which also embrace such exoticisms as ear candling, cupping, colour therapy, vibrational healing and crystal therapy — remain unproven and unregulated.

Brilliant! I zipped out and got myself a copy – you can read an extract yourself thanks to The Times, featured here.

One of the reasons why I’m interested in this topic, apart from the relevant reading it makes for study purposes, is because a much-loved in-law relative of mine was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer last December. One of the books they had on their shelves was called “When Healing Becomes A Crime” by Kenny Ausubel.

Sorry but there was just no way that I was going to have that book uncritically touting ‘alternatives’ like John Holt’s radio-wave claims (‘…no scientific evidence to support the use of microwaves in treating cancer, either alone or when combined with other therapies‘) or Harry Hoxsey’s Tijuana herbal root beer float to them unchallenged when their serious condition was already being treated by the hospital. As one of the reviews (the only one that is negative about the book! Let’s get writing in!) on Amazon says: “The central meaning of the story” is not Hoxsey’s “quest for an investigation” as Ausubel claims, it is fraud, plain old – good old – 19th century American snake oil fraud and it is a terrible shame that Ausubel has wasted 20 years of his life trying to make a heroes out of the crooks who orchestrated it. I now have that book on my shelves and look over it on occasion to remind myself of what a range of claims there are and what arguments are put forward in quackery-texts.

Which is why a modern book like Suckers, that has a straight-forward style and plainly deals with the main issues is so useful – there’s just so much that appeals about alternative claims when you have a serious condition. There’s some great breakdowns of homeopathy, the seriously dodgy ear-candling (I plead guilty to removing a ‘summary’ of this that was popped onto the staff-notice-board as a health tip – you get enough wax in your ear as it is!) and bio-energy mechanics. It’s well-structured, up to date and not too overwhelming in technical talk – and most importantly impassioned and powerful:

How to Spot a Quack
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a quack as someone who is an “impostor in medicine.” Spotting quackery is easy once you know the signs.

A quack will:

Treat only chronic conditions such as fatigue, backache and food intolerance. Practitioners avoid competing with mainstream doctors, so you won’t find Chinese herbs or reflexology being used to treat a broken leg or heart attack.

Use disclaimers. It protects them from legal action when their methods fail.

Tell you that you may get worse before you get better. Mainstream medicine rarely causes the primary symptoms to worsen.

Claim there is a cure for your condition, but your doctor won’t tell you because it will undermine their authority.

Say that the roots of the treatment lie in “ancient wisdom.” But this doesn’t mean it works.

Have a “success rate” of around 80 percent. It’s not too high a figure to be thoroughly unbelievable, yet high enough for the needy to find irresistible. But you won’t find details of who the people are in that 80 percent — they don’t even have to exist.

Be keen to stress your individuality. He will tell you that even if a remedy is useless for others, it might still work for you.

When a site like Quackometer is shut down for questioning homeopathic claims, it’s good to know that print texts are still going to question what is clearly plain bad, let alone unmedical.

Which reminds me – Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O by Christopher Wanjek is another favorite that I recommend, but it’s a few years old now, so it’s great to add this newer text to the list. I would also suggest seeking Trick or Treatment? : Alternative Medicine on Trial by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst – it’ll be out in April and I’ll be grabbing a copy of that too!

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Filed under Cool stuff, Education, Media, Pseudoscience, Science

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