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).

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Think for Self (interview with Stephen Barrett)

Think for Self

08:53 AM PDT on Tuesday, September 6, 2005

By Mike Schwartz / The Press-Enterprise

Medical researchers not only continue to find new ways to alleviate pain and illness, but also to conclude certain popular therapies don't work.

Take homeopathy, a 250-year-old treatment based on the so-called Law of Similars: If, for example, a substance could cause a fever in healthy people, giving tiny amounts -- even in dilutions containing few if any molecules of the original agent -- could cure a fever in an ill person. The problem is that a review of 110 homeopathic trials by Swiss researchers published Aug. 26 in The Lancet concluded that any perceived benefits were due to placebo effects.

Practitioners and dedicated users immediately cried foul -- that The Lancet study is flawed.

"The article is pretty daunting," said Dr. Stephen Barrett, one of America's top consumer health advocates

While the dust settles on this controversy, it seemed a good time to ask Barrett how people can identify all sorts of dubious health claims.

"Anyone whose marketing includes the notion you should ignore the scientific community and trust them instead is out to sell you something and is untrustworthy," warned Barrett, a retired psychiatrist in Allentown, Pa., who operates the Web site

In a telephone interview Barrett offered these guidelines:

Get past outward appearances. Quackery seldom looks outlandish. Promoters often use scientific terms and quote (or misquote) from medical references. Some may even have solid credentials, but have strayed from scientific rigor or ethics.

Dismiss claims that poor nutrition causes most illness. Some disorders such as heart trouble and cancer are associated with diet, but most have other causes. When nutrition is poor, altering diet -- not taking supplements -- is the key.

Be leery of anecdotal evidence. Ask yourself or your doctor if anecdotes and testimonials of amazing cures sound too good to be true. Often people fighting a single bout of illness recover on their own, and many chronic disorders have symptom-free periods.

Watch out for pseudomedical jargon. An advertisement may promise to "detoxify" you; "balance" your chemistry; free your body's "nerve energy;" "harmonize" you with nature or correct organic "weaknesses." These goals are so vague it's impossible to quantify progress.

Don't fall for "secret cures." Legitimate medical researchers share findings with colleagues and the world. Quacks may keep methods under wraps to avoid exposure.

Approach herbal remedies with caution. Some can be useful but others are worthless or interact unpredictably with conventional medicines.

Ignore appeals to your vanity. A suggestion "to think for yourself" rather than follow establishment science can be powerful. A better bet is to rely on one or several solid sources of information.

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