Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Monday, June 06, 2005

No miracle cure for junk science

The Times Online

June 06, 2005

No miracle cure for junk science
Simon Singh

Alternative remedies should be subject to the same scientific testing as other drugs

I LEFT BRITAIN three weeks ago for a book tour of Australia. I thought I was escaping the release of What the Bleep Do We Know?, a documentary purveying pseudoscientific claptrap of the worst kind. (Just for the record, quantum physics does not imply that meditation can bring world peace.) But, I was shocked to find that the film was also haunting Australia. I had imagined that the Aussies were a more down-to-earth bunch, less vulnerable to hippy-dippy brainwashing, but they are equally fond of junk science. Indeed, junk science is now a global phenomenon.

An interesting article in last week’s Health and Science section in the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, poured scorn on the pseudoscience peddled by cosmetic companies. So far, so good. But opposite it was an article entitled “Why I reiki”. Emma Brown, managing director of a recruitment firm, used pseudoscience to justify how reiki helps her to relax.

Once a fortnight, Ms Brown visits a reiki master, whose hands hover over her to “channel negative energy” out of her body. She claimed: “Reiki’s all about working on the energy fields. So if you’re a thinker and stressed out all the time, it’s going to be around your head.” Margaret Spicer, head of the energetic healing diploma at Nature Care College, added: “Sometimes the person who’s delivering the treatment acts as a conduit for energy and so having the energy flow can help a devitalised person.”

Why does the Sydney Morning Herald condemn the pseudoscience of cosmetics while uncritically endorsing baloney such as reiki on the next page? Of course you feel relaxed Ms Brown. You are in a quiet room without a cell phone or the internet, and you probably have some pan-pipes music playing in the background, while your reiki master bores with tales of pilgrimages to the Far East. This is nothing to do with energy fields. This is junk science being used to back up expensive nonsense. Ms Brown has been undergoing reiki treatments for 18 months, which means 36 treatments, probably costing several thousand pounds.

She is welcome to waste her money on expensive relaxation techniques, but the practice of reiki becomes more worrying when so-called masters claim healing powers. People who need serious medical advice are wasting time and money on alternative therapies, and that only delays the moment when proper treatment can start.

Walking through Sydney, I noticed several alternative therapy shops. I asked one aromatherapist if he had anything that would treat a virus. I was perfectly fine and merely telling a little white lie, but the aromatherapist did not know this and was quite willing to sell me $10 of lavender. He did not ask about my symptoms or what other treatments I might be taking. When I asked him how the lavender worked and how he knew it was effective, he responded that he had studied aromatherapy for fours years. I had not asked him how long he had studied, and repeated my questions. This went on for 15 minutes, with no satisfactory answers forthcoming. I then asked if he was at all concerned that he was selling chemicals whose impact and mechanism were a mystery. By this stage he was getting rather stressed, so I suggested that he take a sniff of his own aromatherapy.

I do not blame people who are stressed or ill for seeking alternative therapies. They are not necessarily foolish. After all, newspapers (including this one) and shops on our local high streets are telling us that alternative therapies offer genuine help. And I do not blame the media and the shops for promoting nonsense, because they are simply doing what they are supposed to do — attracting readers and punters to get their slice of what has become a multibillion-pound global industry.

What perplexes me is that governments allow this to happen. If a pharmaceutical company wants to sell me a drug it first has to test it, carry out trials, check its side effects, retest it and prove that it works. Only then can my chemist stock it. But if it is an alternative medicine then almost anything goes.

Alternative therapies should be tested too. Until they have been proven effective, ban them. If some can be proved to work according to proper medical standards, then I would happily embrace them.

There is at least a ray of hope in the fight between real science and junk science. For 150 years a family in Hyderabad has been attracting half a million people to the city in order to feed them live fish with a mystery paste as part of a supposed asthma cure. By taking legal action questioning the scientific basis of the cure, the Indian Medical Association hopes to put a stop to it.

Poor families are spending large amounts of money travelling to Hyderabad and wasting more following the diet. It requires 5,000 officers to police the crowds and there are excessive demands on water supplies in the city. Worst of all, independent tests on the mystery paste last year suggested that it contained steroids, heavy metals and mercury, which can harm kidneys, cause impotence and damage intestines and bone marrow.

Perhaps the IMA’s action is the first sign of swing back to rationalism. Perhaps the British Government might follow suit and begin to regulate the alternative therapy industry more tightly. I am not asking for too much — just prove that alternative remedies work, or ban them. That would place all medical therapies on a level playing field.

Simon Singh is author of Big Bang and Fermat’s Last Theorem