"Alternative Medicine":
Views of a Concerned Layperson

Steven E. Cerier

I have an interest in science and am increasingly worried by the growing prevalence of junk science and the irrationality of the "New Age movement" which, if not unchallenged, will impede scientific and technological progress. Quackwatch has become my first stop on the Internet for answers to my medical questions. I wish that there were more Web sites that tell the actual facts about health issues. Instead, the Internet, magazines, and radio and television broadcasts are saturated with medical nonsense. It appears that every quack in the world is getting his or her "fifteen minutes of fame," whereas the voices of medical reason seem to be few and far between.

There is clearly a battle between the proponents of "alternative" medicine and those of science-based medicine. I wish that I could say that the good guys are winning. But to be quite honest, I'm not at all sure that is the case, particularly in light of the many people I know with strong beliefs in "alternative" modalities. I have tried my best to educate them and have given them articles that I have downloaded from Quackwatch, but it is virtually impossible to reason with them. They have such an irrational hatred for the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry that they would rather believe in the metaphysical nonsense of Gary Null and Bernie Siegel than go to a doctor.

Many people who admire Drs. Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra probably have no idea that they believe in some very weird and strange things. Andrew Weil for instance has said that many of his basic insights about the causes of diseases and the nature of healing come from "stone thinking," that is, thoughts experienced while under the influence of psychedelic agents or during other states of "altered consciousness" induced by trances, ritual magic, hypnosis and mediation. He has said that "stoned thinking" has advantages over "straight thinking." Among them are a greater reliance on intuition and an acceptance of the ambivalent nature of things, which to him means "the coexistence of opposites that appear to be mutually antagonistic." Any doctor who said those things would probably have his medical license revoked. Weil has also said:

My intuitions about disease are that its physical manifestations are mostly caused by nonmaterial factors, in particular by unnatural restraints placed on the unconscious mind and second, that the limits to what human consciousness can cause in the physical body are far beyond where most of us imagine them. Since leaving the world of the allopathic practice, I have witnessed a number of impressive non-allopathic cures of dramatic illnesses, including cancer and life-threatening infections. Faith healing is held in contempt by most rational people, despite the abundant evidence of cures.

I have seen Weil on television saying that energy healers cured him of a cold and that LSD might be a viable treatment for curing allergies. I wish that I was making these things up, but I'm not. This is not science; it is New Age metaphysical junk. It is also very dangerous, given the large number of people who respect and admire Weil for his so called "pioneering work" and expertise in "alternative" medicine. Weil is indeed an expert—at fooling the public and perhaps even himself. He has proven nothing, done no clinical trials, and published no research reports in any reputable medical journal. Yet, like a magician, he is praised for creating the illusion of something out of nothing.

As for Chopra, I can't understand why anyone would trust somebody who claims that he has levitated and who says that "if you think happy, you will have happy molecules." I suspect that many people who buy his books don't actually read them because if they did, they would never buy another one again. His beliefs include the idea that "illness and aging are an illusion and we can achieve an ageless body and a timeless mind by the sheer force of consciousness." Try telling people with cancer that their illness is an illusion and can be cured by happy thoughts. Most of what Chopra advocates is typical New Age babble. For example, he says that (a) a person is a field of vibrating energy, information and intelligence connected to the entire cosmos; (b) all organs of the body are built from a specific sequence of vibrations; (c) when organs are sick, they are vibrating improperly; (d) certain herbs and aromas can help to restore proper vibrations; (e) certain gems and crystals can rejuvenate human skin; and (f) good thoughts can reverse the aging process." How does he know all this? Simple, because he believes it to be true and as a result, it is unnecessary for him to prove it.

Personally, I don't believe there is such a thing as "alternative" medicine. The word alternative implies choosing between two valid approaches that hopefully will have a similar outcome. But there is no such thing as alternative medicine, just as there is no such thing as Chinese or Indian medicine. There is only medicine that has been proven to be effective. But the proponents of "alternative" medicine are under the misguided belief that if you believe something, it doesn't have to be proven.

One fervent believer told me that whatever modality you choose will only work if you believe it will work. However, antibiotics, for example, will do their job whether the patients believes in them or not. That certainly is not the case with homeopathic products. When I asked a believer in homeopathy if she understood the principles behind it, she replied that homeopathic products contain the "essence" of the original substance and therefore exert a very powerful curative impact. I was so stunned that I didn't know how to reply. Homeopathic medicine is actually the essence of nothing.

I've learned that there is little or no use trying to reason with believers in metaphysical medicine, especially those who believe there is a conspiracy to destroy "alternative medicine." According to the "true" believers, mainstream doctors are wedded to outmoded thinking and refuse to accept the reality that "alternative medicine works." All you have to do is eat macrobiotically, practice visualization techniques, take homeopathic medicine, think happy thoughts, go for acupuncture treatments, take herbal baths, become a vegetarian, don't eat refined sugar and meditate. I wish that it were that easy. I wish that a macrobiotic diet could cure cancer, homeopathic medicine could cure pneumonia, or thinking positively could cure Parkinson's disease. If such was indeed the case, we could save billions of dollars in medical costs and tens of thousands of lives. But it's not that simple. The human body is very complex and requires more than positive thinking or eliminating meat from your diet to cure it.

If indeed "alternative" practitioners did have the answers, it would be very easy for them to prove it and clear up any doubts. But they don't want to do that. When Andrew Weil was asked during a "60 Minutes" interview why he doesn't perform clinical trials, he replied that he was not a clinical researcher. But without well-designed studies, how can he know that his methods actually work? To him, apparently, belief is far more important than scientific evidence. Virtually all the advocates of "alternative" medicine share this view. In Reclaiming our Health, John Robbins, a New Age devotee, vegan, and animal rights activist, states that "many conditions, including most forms of cancer, viral infections, allergic and autoimmune disorders, and most chronic degenerative diseases . . . are more effectively handled with alternative approaches." This is statement is startling, but he provides no evidence to back it up. As noted by the prominent astronomer and skeptic Carl Sagan, "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence." But for the "alternative" crowd, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary belief.

The believers in "alternative" medicine castigate drugs because of their side effects. Instead, they espouse herbs, even though many herbs also have side effects and some are quite dangerous. But there is a misconception that because something is natural it can't possibly be dangerous. Try taking hemlock and see how benign it is. And many other herbs are harmful. Aloe and arnica, for example, should not be ingested, while periwinkle, pennyroyal, squill, petasite, and tansy are quite dangerous. It worries me that many people self-medicate with products that they literally know nothing about and that many rely on the advice of salespeople at their local "health food" or "natural food" outlets. Don't they realize that they are playing Russian Roulette with their health?

Modern medicine is not perfect. Doctors make terrible mistakes. Many drugs are overprescribed and have troublesome side effects. People die unnecessarily in hospitals. Some doctors are greedy, incompetent, and unsympathetic. Some operations are not necessary. Doctors often don't spend enough time getting to know their patients. But despite its faults, modern medicine is infinitely better than the quackery of "alternative" medicine.


Mr. Cerier, an economist from Forest Hill, New York, has worked as an international economist, a foreign exchange analyst and a global financial markets analyst.

This article was posted on August 23, 2001.