Why do people use alternative therapies?

It’s common to use the abbreviation ‘CAM’ to refer to complementary and alternative therapies and I shall do the same as an occasional alternative to my preferred descriptions, which include ‘quackery’ and ‘bollocks’, even though I don’t really like an umbrella term that lumps potentially useful complementary therapies in with other so-called therapies that are quackery/bollocks.

Elsewhere on the web I see people now using the acronym CAM to mean its very opposite: ‘conventional and allopathic medicine’. That won’t happen here because this blog is a quack-free zone.

So why do people use CAM?

1. The evils of orthodox medicine

Anyone who has tried to engage a CAM user or practitioner in a constructive discussion about, say, how these therapies don’t work, will be familiar with their tendency to divert attention onto the problems of orthodox medicine. Time and again we hear about iatrogenic deaths and injuries and about incompetent or corrupt doctors who only want to line their own pockets. We hear endless twaddle about ‘allopathic medicine suppressing symptoms’ and failing to treat the ‘whole person’. More than anything else, we hear about the evils of Big Pharma. Unfortunately for the CAM faithful, such stories do not prove to us that CAM therapies work.  And as I am not a doctor or funded in any way by Big Pharma, I’m not very interested in these charges beyond what they tell us about why people turn to alternative therapies in the first place. As an argument, it sucks.

Disillusionment with evidence-based medicine and its practitioners can happen for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s because there really isn’t anything that can help with their complaint. Nobody will claim that modern (i.e. evidence-based) medicine has the answer to every ailment. At worst, it’s because people have — or perceive they have — been seriously hurt or damaged, either physically or financially or both, by some aspect of conventional healthcare. Many others, like me, simply grew up with generally negative impressions of their country’s health service. Whatever the reason for our disillusionment, for many it provides the impetus to look elsewhere for treatment.

2. It’s ‘natural’, it’s ‘ancient wisdom’, it’s ‘Eastern’ etc.

All kinds of meaningless (and mostly untrue) descriptions are used by CAM pushers about their remedies, of which the most pervasive is probably ‘natural’, so I’ll focus on that.

When someone describes a remedy as ‘natural’, it usually means one of three things:

  • The speaker is stupid.
  • The speaker is an ignoramus.
  • The speaker is marketing a useless remedy.

These three qualities are not mutually contradictory and a combination of any two or all three can be, and often are, found in one person.

Stupid people just accept whatever they are told without question. If a given remedy is marketed as ‘natural’, that’s good enough for them. And natural=good or, at least, it can’t equal bad because it’s natural. It’s obvious isn’t it?

I once witnessed an exchange between two stupid people. One was recommending a laxative she’d bought in a health food shop, not just because it worked (for her) but because it was ‘natural’ and therefore ‘better than something chemical’, was how she put it. She took the ‘natural’ laxative from her handbag to show her companion. It was a bottle of pills. I wondered what she thought was natural about those pills. Did she think they’d been plucked from a bush?

Of course she didn’t. In this instance, the remedy was herbal, so you can follow the thinking: I don’t know what chemicals are but they sound scary. You can grow herbs in the garden so they’re natural. And natural means good.

I’d hazard a guess that this woman doesn’t have a clue how pharmaceutical drugs are made and it hasn’t occurred to her to even want to find out.

Many chemical substances that were originally derived from plants proved to be effective medicines. That’s why I wouldn’t dismiss herbal remedies in the same breath as homeopathy or ear candling. The difference between these plant-based medicines and the stuff sold in health food shops or in Chinese herb shops, is that the former has undergone rigorous testing and standardisation. And, of course, many can only be prescribed by qualified medical practitioners.

But the N-word isn’t just used for herbal remedies. It’s used for all kinds of nonsense, including homeopathy and ear-candling. The promoters of quackery know a good buzz word when they hear one and will unashamedly use it ad nauseam about their products and this description will be accepted without question by stupid people.

People who are quite intelligent and well-educated but who are somewhat ignorant about science accept it too, for much the same reason as stupid people.

3. People don’t know how it doesn’t work

But more surprising than the fact that some intelligent and well-educated people accept the description ‘natural’ for CAM is the fact that they believe it works at all or, rather, that they believe it can work other than as a placebo. The possible reason – apart from that they tried it and it ‘worked’ for them – is that they either don’t seek an explanation of how a remedy is supposed to work or, if they do, they accept whatever they are told without subjecting it to any serious scrutiny. As far as CAM is concerned, it’s often impossible to distinguish between people who are usually clever but who are ignorant about basic science and therefore gullible, and people who are just stupid.

So to take aloe, for example, when a promoter of herbal medicine says:

In fact, Aloe is an amazing plant with a wide ability to aid in the healing process, to protect, moisturize, and even extend life. It was used in ancient times for medicinal purposes, and its relevancy has not diminished today. Aloe’s usefulness continues to grow as scientists study its properties and possible applications.

Aloe Vera is a cellular regenerator and has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal effects. These properties alone contribute to Aloe’s place as one of nature’s healthiest products.

…they take it pretty much at face value. They don’t necessarily think about or question the term ‘cell regenerator’ and what it could actually mean. It wouldn’t even occur to them to pop over to PubMed and look for a systematic review of studies of aloe.

Similarly, homeopushers talk authoritatively about the Law of Similars as if it were a universally applicable scientific law, which it isn’t, and many homeopathy users don’t know that the remedies they swear by are so diluted that they contain none of the original ingredient. More on homeoquackery here.

4. Argumentum ad populum

Another favourite argument of CAM supporters in general and homeopaths in particular, is that millions of people all over the world use it (and some of them are celebrities). I don’t know what the evidence for the millions claim is but I’m prepared to believe that millions — like me — do at least try a homeopathic or other CAM remedy, find them to be absolutely useless and give up on them sooner or later. I also know that in some places CAM treatment is cheaper to the individual consumer than evidence-based treatment, though in other places — including Britain — the reverse is true. I even know that in some places round the world, there is simply no good alternative to alternative remedies: evidence-based medicine is not available to the masses. The argument that CAM works because millions use it is fallacious and disingenuous.

To sum up, people use alternative therapies because they have no choice or because they are disillusioned with orthodox medicine. They use them because they believe they are natural and therefore that, at worst, they can’t do any harm and may do some good. They use them because lots of other people use them. And they use them because they believe they can and do work.

There may well be other reasons why people use alternative remedies but that ‘there is scientific evidence for them’ is not one of them. More on that in my next post.

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3 thoughts on “Why do people use alternative therapies?”

  1. OK. Firstly, there is evidence based science that supports many “natural” therapies. Before I elaborate, I would like for you to dissect the use of Taxol and refute its actions as a chemotheraputic drug. Don’t forget to look where it came from.

    In addition, prior to speaking about the lack of evidence based research, why don’t you do a literature search on search on such sites as PubMed. You’ll find clinical trials, and better yet, mechanistic studies showing how natural procducts affect the immune, nervous/autonomic, cardiovascular systems, etc.

    Not too smart of you, sorry to say.

  2. Hello L.Price

    May I respectfully suggest that, instead of telling me what you’d like me to do, you tell me exactly what it is I’ve said that you disagree with and why. And if you think there are papers on PubMed that I should read, please say why you think I should read them and give me the references so that I can do so.


  3. Sometimes you get to the clinic, and they don’t have the cure for the ailment that you are suffering from; sometimes the only way to find cure is to go to the old man next door who

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