Unfortunate etiquette and why alternative medicine could kill you.


The other day, I want for lunch at my local entirely lovely veggie cafe. As I was munching away on my very tasty green curry, I happened to overhear what the people at the next table over were talking about. In my defense, the place was quiet and they were.. not. Also, I’m an inveterate eavesdropper 😉

These two people were having a conversation about illness. One of them had recently been diagnosed- with what, she didn’t mention, but given the rest of the conversation it might have been some form of cancer. The other had survived some form of cancer. They were talking about his experiences with his illness, and her plans for living with hers. It was.. a pretty intense conversation that they were having. And it was obvious that she was someone struggling to deal with a difficult diagnosis, and looking for support. Which he was providing, in spades.

Where this became worrying was when they started to talk about her options, and whether she would go for ‘the medical route’ or ‘alternatives’. He talked about how medical doctors don’t care about patients as people. How to them a patient is just a cog in the machine. How alternative practitioners, on the other hand, spend time with you and offer real solutions that are tailored to your own needs. And how meditation, positive thinking and art therapy could do more for her than any doctor.

I’m sure this man was incredibly well-meaning. And yes, I’m sure that he’s not wrong when he says that his doctors weren’t interested in him as a person. But, you know something? While art therapy and meditation are lovely things, and while thinking positively can do wonderful things for your outlook and ability to cope, they’re not going to cure this woman’s cancer. And, no matter what he thinks, they didn’t cure his. His unpleasant experiences going through the medical system for cancer treatment were, no doubt, real. But they’re still most likely the reason he’s alive today.

Right then, I wished it wasn’t considered the absolute height of rudeness to interrupt an intimate (if, in fairness, reasonably loud) conversation by telling a distressed woman that her caring friend was wrong, and that taking his advice could very well cost her her life. That she should do all the art therapy and meditating she liked, after taking the advice of her doctors and getting her ass into a hospital for some treatment. That maybe her doctors are a bit busy with making people better, are probably overstressed and overworked, and that if she has a problem with their not being able to take time to get to know her then it might be time to send a strongly worded letter to the Minister for Health. That yes, our health system is incredibly broken- but it’s still the only way she’ll get better. And that dying of untreated cancer is one hell of an awful way to go.

I wanted to say that, but I couldn’t.

But here’s the thing. There’s nothing harmful about meditating, or art therapy (which, I gather, has many very useful applications), or positive thinking. But there’s something very harmful about thinking that these things are reasonable alternatives to evidence-based medicine. That’s the kind of thing that leaves people dying of treatable illnesses because they didn’t get medical help. Or because they tried the ‘alternatives’ first and by the time they went for medical help it was too late. The kind of misinformation that leaves people thinking that ‘alternative’ medicine provides effective cures for deadly diseases is incredibly dangerous.

And with that, I can’t think of a better way to leave you than with Tim Minchin’s Storm. So here you go:

12 thoughts on “Unfortunate etiquette and why alternative medicine could kill you.

  1. I personally know three people whose late stage cancers simply went away and these people have now gone many years (in one case over 20) because of alternative medicine. One of the people was told by traditional doctors that she had 6 months at most to live. It has been 18 years and she is alive and very happy. Another woman refused to have a double mastectomy and all her friends and doctors practically howled when she announced that she was getting an alternative specialist. Now, her tumors have shrunk in size to the degree where her regular doctor has absolutely no explanation of how that happened. All these people are my family members.

    • *nods*
      I’ll believe those stories, absolutely. I had a grandaunt who survived decades with cancer that ‘should’ have killed her within a short time after her diagnosis. She lived well into her eighties. She drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney as well. I always said that she survived by sheer bloody-mindedness!
      Here’s the thing, though. People survive with horrendous illnesses that should kill them sometimes. People’s cancers mysteriously vanish sometimes. And sometimes perfectly healthy people drop dead. Statistically, there’s always going to be someone at the extremely lucky end of the bell curve, and there’ll always be families where, though sheer luck or, in some cases, fortunate genes/environment/etc, there’s a cluster there.
      I’m not disputing what happened with your family members. In fact, I think that any time someone recovers from something that people thought would kill them is pretty darn awesome. I’m saying that these things happen, and that statistically there is no benefit beyond placebo for the vast majority of ‘alternative’ therapies. There’s been so much research done, time and time again, showing this. The plural of anecdote isn’t data, you know?
      By definition, alternative therapies are the things that didn’t stand up to testing. But then again, the placebo effect is an incredible thing, and most alternative therapies are designed in such a way as to maximise it.
      Either way, I’m glad to hear your relatives are doing well 🙂

  2. Well said.

    As you say, cancers and all sorts of horrible maladies sometimes do go away, but to say “it was alternative medicine” is not obvious. It could have been conventional therapy. It could have been a fightback by antibodies. It could have been that cancers like this just stop. It could have been exercise. It could have been prayer. It could have been the Indian meal you had 3 weeks ago. It’s very, very difficult to assign causality without a lot of hard research.

  3. Etiquette can be strange. It often leads to not saying things that really should be said. You’d think that potentially saving someone’s life would be worth a little social embarrassment. But this sort of thing is much easier in theory than in practice. Having ones choice of medical treatment critiqued by an eavesdropping stranger isn’t likely to end in reasoned discussion. It’s more likely to end with a lot of shouting and crying and you not being allowed in that cafe ever again.

  4. What Brendan said. If you won’t take the advice of a doctor, a person with lots of experience and whose advice you are after all paying for (in some form, either directly or via taxation), you’re quite unlikely to listen to the same advice as provided by a stranger whose opinion you didn’t even ask.

    So, you know. You almost certainly wouldn’t have changed anything if you had interrupted.

  5. You say: “While art therapy and meditation are lovely things, and while thinking positively can do wonderful things for your outlook and ability to cope, they’re not going to cure this woman’s cancer. And, no matter what he thinks, they didn’t cure his.”

    But really, what do you know? That’s an arrogant and ignorant thing to say. That man may still be wrong, but at least he got direct experience to prove is point. Besides your blind assumptions, what do you have?

    • “Besides your blind assumptions, what do you have?”

      Eh, evidence? Like you say, relying on blind assumptions is an arrogant and ignorant thing to do. However, what is the more blind assumption- that a person who thinks positively and receives medical treatment for cancer survives because of their (laboriously tested, with significant evidence showing their efficacy) treatments, or because they maintained a positive attitude? If I’m climbing up a cliff and I fall, is my fall arrested because of my lack of fear and confidence in my safety, or because of my harness, ropes, and person at the other end of them holding on tight?
      Besides your blind assumptions, what evidence do you have?

  6. That’s exactly where the problem lies. I have plenty of evidence, but you haven’t even asked, until you felt provoked to do so. And still, you are asking moving from the assumption that my views are arrogant and blind as yours are. Because you think you are the only one of us who got it right, so I am making it up. But this is not the case. I have studied what you call “harness and ropes”, and I know they hold nothing. What I found is that “labioriously tested” treatments are irrational and illogic. I cured a benign tumor by fasting and changing diet. How does “tested” medicine cure those? Surgery. In other words, scars at best, mutilations commonly, death at worse.

    I cured my asthma permanently just by learning medical theory that is logic and rational, before being empirically tested. In a 200 pages book written in the ’80s by a naturopath. Cost: zero. I borrowed the book. It changed my life. How did I try up to that point? All kinds of doctors, sprays and chemicals. Science? It’s mostly smoke.

    Take nutrition for example. To be a nutritionist in most countries you have to study until you are 30 or 35. And then, how much do you really know of nutrition? About 30%. Over 65% percent of the chemicals contained in food are unknown – this is what their own official statistics say. But they call themselves experts, and you can’t work in that field unless you follow the exact same path they have followed. Why? Because they have convinced the legislators that they are the experts, and that you can’t be one unless you do the same.

    But are they? Can you get by calling yourself a scientist knowing 30% of any science? Maybe in quantum physics. But you can’t build a skyscraper if you don’t know the whole theory. So you don’t call yourself “Construction engineer” until you know how to do that 100%, because everybody would be able to see that you are a liar. Also, building skyscrapers is an actual science: same conditions equal same results.

    Medicine is an art, not a science. Doctors literally don’t know how to cure a flu. A flu. I am not talking about “rare mysterious disease”. So they do an “educated guess”, but guessing is no science.

    And while some alternative medicines certainly do damage, so do the educated guesses of “doctors”. And in fact, the biggest damage made by traditional medicine is exactly that: convincing us that it holds some truth. So that you can put all the other medicine schools with no exception under a single label: alternative, and treat them all as if they were inherently false. After all, they haven’t spent 20 years to study the same stuff you have. You know little, but they have to know less that you do.

    • Question for you: Do you actually know what the word ‘science’ means? Or what the scientific method is? I’d encourage you to look this up- it’s an incredibly useful tool for everyone, even if you’re not a scientist.

      I’m not sure how you can argue that things which have not been tested and have no evidence behind them are to be trusted more than things which have. Again- how can you say that testing a thing, time and time again, sharing your results, and encouraging others to attempt to disprove you and to share those results is a worse method than “I did this, and then I got better, and that obviously means that that’s why I got better”?

      I would strongly encourage you to take a look into both the scientific method and cognitive bias. From your posts here, it looks like you have a strong ability to criticise things you disagree with- all that’s needed to make a good skeptic out of you is the above tools, and the ability to turn the same criticism on things you agree with 🙂

      Also, you are entirely correct in one thing. Doctors don’t know how to cure the flu. Or the common cold. Or any other viral disease. However, of course, they do know exactly what these diseases are. And can prevent them extremely effectively using vaccines. Medical responses to disease like this save millions of lives every year, and are one of the major reasons why these days many of us can expect to live many decades longer than we previously could. Which is awesome!

  7. Medicine is an art, not a science. Doctors literally don’t know how to cure a flu. A flu. I am not talking about “rare mysterious disease”. So they do an “educated guess”, but guessing is no science.

    You’re glossing over some important details here in your effort to bash modern, evidence-based medicine. The flu is caused by a virus, and there are many strains developing from year to year. And it’s simply an accident of biology that it’s harder to develop agents that kill viruses than it is to develop antibiotics. Jeering at doctors for not being able to cure the flu is like jeering at computer scientists for not being able to break RSA encryption in a time-effecient manner. RSA boils down to factoring numbers into primes, it’s not anything exotic… but even though it _sounds_ simple and everyday and commonplace, it turns out to be a difficult problem.

  8. Hahahahaha, guys, this is getting very convoluted. I understand your attempt at making fun of something that you find silly. We all do that, right?

    But if you mock a type of medicine because it’s different, it’s up to you to defend what you say. You mock others because you think you are being logic and rational (and cool?), while this thing you are insulting isn’t. Then why don’t you keep being logic and rational and prove what you say? You make it sound like I am attacking you, while all I am doing is pointing to facts, which prove that your position is prevented.

    Natural medicine cures cancer, flu, asthma and diabetes. There is enough proof of this, if my personal experience and the experience of several others wasn’t enough I could point you to several scientific sources.

    You have to admit though that if medical professors paint reality in colors that then they can’t control it is proof of their failure, not of their success.

    If I create a model of reality that is too complex for me to use successfully, the fault is of the model, not of reality.

    Because in medicine success should be defined by results in terms of health, not in terms of most detailed definition of the health issue.

    If you solve an health issue with a simple model, where is the problem? A flu can be looked at as a simple problem and it can be solved as such.

    Simple solutions do not deserve your contempt just because they are simple, and certainly they don’t deserve your contempt because they are different!

    If you have cured a person, you win. Period.

    Bye.

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