Snake oil comes in all kinds of bottles
Snake oil comes in many guises, most of which exist to reduce the contents of one’s purse. Last week an Associated Press writer detailed how the government spent $2.5 billion of our money to test various so-called alternative health remedies, most of which would be considered snake oil by mainstream medicine, and came up virtually empty handed.
Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer. All proved no better than dummy pills in big studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The lone exception: ginger capsules may help chemotherapy nausea.
Acupuncture and some of the hands-on manipulative therapies fared a little better.
As for therapies, acupuncture has been shown to help certain conditions, and yoga, massage, meditation and other relaxation methods may relieve symptoms like pain, anxiety and fatigue.
The article didn’t give a rundown of every alternative or non-mainstream therapy tested, so I don’t know what they all are, but I can add one to the list if it wasn’t tested in this $2.5B testorama. I would add the use of HCG for weight loss.
Many practitioners are using injections of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) injections coupled with an extremely low-calorie diet to help their patients lose weight. Many practitioners and many patients swear by this regimen. But, a number of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have shown that the HCG regimen is no better than placebo.
But if this is so, how come so many patients and practitioners believe so strongly in this HCG/diet combo? Simple answer. Because it works.
But if it works, why is it a worthless regimen? Because it doesn’t work any better than placebo.
If you go to a doctor who tells you that he/she is going to start you on an extremely powerful weight-loss program that involves multiple injections along with a stringent diet composed of specific foods to be eaten on a rigid time schedule (especially if these foods add up to only 500 calories per day), you will come away convinced that you are going to do well. Especially after you’ve paid the bill, which is considerable in these HCG centers.
If you go in for all the injections and scrupulously follow the diet, you will lose a fair amount of weight pretty quickly. And you will develop and unshakable believe that this regimen did the trick for you. You will tell your friends, all of whom have witnessed your rapid weight loss, and they, too, (at least those who can afford it) will go to the same practitioner and fork over for the treatment.
Problem is this treatment works the same if the patients are given a salt-water shot or an HCG shot. There is no difference in outcome. The HCG doesn’t do diddly. It’s the fact that you get a shot that makes the difference. If you simply went on the 500 calorie per day diet you would lose the same. But it’s the magic of receiving the shot, especially after being told (as most are) at the practitioner’s office that the shot will help overcome the hunger of being on a drastically calorically-reduced diet. And it does. But it doesn’t matter if it’s a saline shot or a dose of HCG. It’s the magic of having something done.
Which is why in the $2.5 billion tests, the manipulative therapies worked and the others didn’t. There is something about having a procedure done that makes you feel like your getting a more powerful treatment.
I can’t tell you how many people came in to see me when I had a regular medical practice who demanded a shot because they were convinced that shots worked better than oral medications. For some things they do, but for most, they don’t. But you couldn’t convince most of my patients of that.
There are a few of what many would consider alternative medicines that do work. I posted on one that does here. But, as the large conglomeration of studies reported on by the AP showed, most don’t.
As you might imagine, the report of the failure of most alternative therapies was like catnip to mainstream physicians, researchers and writers. They were absolutely giddy with joy. Here are just a few representative comments:
Well, since I’ve been bagging on the alt-med nonsense lately, I simply couldn’t pass up this headline. And folks… the headline says it all… “No Alternative Cures Found”… Zilch… Nada… Zip… Zero! Despite their inability to understand the most basic aspects of science and the associated math, I think that zero is a number that even alt-med woo-meisters can grasp 🙂
(Woo is the derogatory term these mainstreamers have come up with for any treatment or therapy not taught in traditional medical schools or developed by Big Pharma.)
I never thought I’d see it, but I have. After an a decent article on the infiltration of quackademic medicine into American medical centers and a very good article on cancer quackery, Marilyn Marchione of the AP has done it again:
AP IMPACT: $2.5B spent, no alternative med cures…
I’ve documented the woo funded by NCCAM on multiple occasions. I mean, NCCAM is funding studies of that woo of woos, homeopathy, fer cryin’ out loud! I”m [sic] glad that the mainstream media is finally noticing.
Here’s a shocker for you: after a decade and 2.5 billion (with a b, folks) dollars spent, a government study shows that almost no alternative medicines worked.
So, they used actual scientific testing processes instead of anecdotes, and found that most of these simply don’t work. Like I said: shocker.
…the studies have shown that most of these remedies don’t work. And will this change the minds of their advocates?
HAHAHAHAHAHAhahahahahahaha! Oh man, sometimes I crack myself up.
This is just one more arrow in our quiver, but the alternative medicine believers will continue to move the targets around. Stay vigilant, and remember: people waste money, people get sick, and people die because of this antiscientific thinking. That’s why testing this, publicizing it, and fighting the misinformation is so important.
Believe me, this is just a small sampling of what I came across on the internet when I searched for links to the AP article.
Hostile and condescending as the tone of these remarks is, the people who made them are pretty much on the money. These treatments need to be evaluated in the harsh glare of double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. Now they have been, and, just as with the HCG regimen for weight loss, they’ve been found lacking.
But that’s not necessarily the end of the story. We don’t know the details about these studies. Was there just one study for each alternative therapy? Or were there multiple studies, each of which demonstrated no effectiveness? If just one, then the above criticisms may not be valid.
Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. Just because we can’t get a positive result in one study doesn’t mean there isn’t a positive result to be had. Science is the continual testing of hypotheses until the evidence is overwhelming that the hypothesis is valid or it isn’t. But even overwhelming evidence doesn’t always prove out in the long run. Newton’s laws were held to be valid after centuries of testing, then Einstein came along.
What interests me so much about the glee with which these mainstreamers greet the failure of alternative medicine (at least the failure shown by $2.5B worth of research) is that the vast majority of these same folks believe in the notion that people are overweight because they eat too much and exercise too little, an idea that scientifically holds little water. A myth, really. But they all believe it because on the surface it seems to make sense to them. All the scientifically valid arguments that, say, Gary Taubes makes fall on deaf ears. (Here is a video of a recent lecture Gary gave to doctors at Dartmouth. Do you think any of them were moved to give up their antiquated views by the science presented? It’s highly doubtful.)
And while most of the people pooh poohing woo are doing so, they are out pushing statins for all their worth. And statins – other than for a small group of people – have the same efficacy as the alternative medicines they are so quick to disparage. Let’s see, how did that one writer put it? “…Zilch… Nada… Zip… Zero!”
That’s right. The category of drugs that are the top selling drugs worldwide have no efficacy in terms of reducing overall mortality, at least as shown by randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, in any group except men under the age of 65 who have been diagnosed with heart disease. This doesn’t mean men under 65 who have elevated cholesterol, but men under 65 who have actually been diagnosed with heart disease or who have had a heart attack. And even in that group, the efficacy is questionable.
The mainstreamers such as those quoted above don’t question the effectiveness of statins even though at least $2.5 billion has been spent to test them and found them lacking, but readily discount alternative medicines simply because they don’t fit with their belief system. Based on the evidence at hand, I wouldn’t give people Echinacea, shark cartilage and all the rest because the studies show they don’t work better than placebo, but for all the same reasons, I wouldn’t give a patient a statin either. In fact, I would probably give the Echinacea before I gave the statin because, as far as I know, no one has died taking Echinacea, of which the same can’t be said of statins.
If alternative medicines are going to be held to scientific standards, so should be pharmaceuticals. Snake oil is snake oil no matter what its bottle it looks like.