Feeling sick?

Walk into the pharmaceutical section of your local store and you’re likely to find medicine to help relieve cold symptoms, reduce fever, and do a whole host of other things to help you feel better.

And now, thanks to the Federal Trade Commission, you may find that alternative medicine treatments like homeopathic medicine will have labels like this:

“There is no scientific evidence that this product works.”

A welcome step for science-based medicine, to be sure. Particularly for a treatment that relies on diluting a substance in water to the point where none of the original substance is left and a concept called water memory that contradicts basic science.

But will those labels actually make you or anyone else less likely to purchase homeopathic medicine?

After all, for anyone who is already inclined to base their decisions on whether to purchase medicine based on scientific evidence, the fact that experiments have shown that homeopathy is no better than a placebo should be enough, and labels should be unnecessary.

So why do people buy alternative medicine products like homeopathy?

Perhaps because it appears to work?

After all, thanks to the combined power of the placebo effect, patients’ natural defense mechanisms, and confirmation bias, many people believe alternative treatments work to heal them.

Acupuncture is a particularly interesting case that highlights the placebo effect rather well.

The practice involves inserting needles into a person’s back at certain pressure points to help relieve chronic pain, based off of an alternative medical system that invokes the existence of qi, a type of “energy” that flows through the body. (And there is a Nobel prize waiting for anyone who has evidence for the existence of qi.)

Here’s a really good article on acupuncture and whether it is useful for pain relief.

In order to test whether acupuncture has an effect on patients, it is compared to sham acupuncture (a placebo), which uses different pressure points than those used in real acupuncture.

It’s been shown that there is no statistical difference between real and sham acupuncture, which heavily implies that any pain relief patients may feel is due to the placebo effect.

Results like this have been found for many forms of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) such as homeopathy and acupuncture, where the treatments are typically as effective or less effective than a placebo (sciencebasedmedicine is a good place to find analysis of alternative medicine treatments.)

However, there are contradictory studies on many of these treatments, with some finding them to be effective and others finding them to be ineffective, so the quality of many of these studies comes into question. Many people, after all, are invested in the idea of alternative medicine, and so you’ll find cases where certain countries will only have positive results for certain treatments or where conflicts of interest come into play. A good way to check to see if a scientific study on medicine is flawed is to check it using Hill’s criteria of causation, a set of criteria used to determine a causal relationship between two concepts.

In any case, the scientific basis for all of these treatments is lacking, as they are typically based on ancient ideas that contradict basic science. Until a consensus has been made on certain treatments and whether they work, however, erring on the skeptical side is always a good idea.

Now, interestingly, most patients find medical evidence highly important when considering what treatments to choose.

So why do so over 38% of adults use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which as shown above typically have shaky ground in science?

One study aiming to answer this question concluded that it may be because more people are believing in holistic health and having strong beliefs about their illnesses.

This makes sense. Over the past few decades, holistic views on medicine have been growing, even amongst doctors themselves, due to the introduction of Eastern medicine into American culture.

But what are these holistic views on health, better known as holism?

To put it simply, holism is the view that treatments should focus on patients as a whole, with “mind, body, and soul” all taken into account.

In contrast, conventional medicine is laser-focused on individual problems patients may have, following a philosophy called reductionism.

Which method is better?

Many would argue that they both have their merits, holistic medicine temporarily relieving pain and stress while conventional medicine relieving the medical issues themselves.

And one can understand the appeal of alternative medicine. It feels more “natural” and psychologically pleasing than regular medicine, feeling like a more trustworthy alternative to many. That’s why many people opt to use both at once, using “alternative” medicine as “complementary” medicine.

But as mentioned earlier, such medicine is based on pseudoscience and typically amounts to be no better than placebos.

And placebos, as it turns out, cost money.

Americans spent over $33.9 billion on alternative medicine treatments in the year 2007, according to a government survey.

Consider the vitamin supplement industry. Over half of Americans used vitamin supplements between 2003 to 2006.

The companies selling such products must be making quite a bit of profit.

However, for most people, vitamin supplements are unnecessary and do not decrease risk of disease.

A good way to save money would be to hold off on the supplements and just resort to eating the way you normally do.

This also highlights another issue:

The FDA does not have permission to check dietary supplements for their safety before they go to market.

Of course, companies typically have their products checked by 3rd parties before they release their products to the market, but there have been instances where the trust of such companies has been called into question.

Specifically, it was found that a certain plant labeled on many herbal supplements sold at four different retailers in New York was not actually in the product.

New York did pass reforms to check supplements for their ingredients after this incident, but it shows just how necessary it is to regulate these products and treatments.

This also calls into question whether the government should be doing more to keep such products that are not backed up by science out of the market.

This seems like good policy, and the FDA should take more steps to ensure that scientific labels are added to dubious products so that the public is less likely to spend money on products that don’t work.

However, this goes all the way back to the question of whether labels on whether a product is backed up by research are effective at changing consumer habits.

What can change consumer habits?

For starters, better science education. Nobody would fall for homeopathy if they understood basic fundamentals of chemistry, and anyone with decent physics knowledge would understand that qi energy makes little sense and, by extension, acupuncture.

There should also be a greater understanding of the philosophy of science itself. We should improve the public understanding of the process that goes into determining what is medicine and what isn’t, and give them an appreciation of the fact that this can sometimes take a long time, to ensure that the treatment works effectively and is safe. Reductionism, a philosophy of taking complex processes and breaking them down into their individual parts, is the driving philosophy of scientific discovery, and promoting this as opposed to holism may help as well.

The biggest thing, however, is news media. The current health news is permeated with new studies littered with words like “suggests,” “is linked to,” and “correlated with.” Increasing understanding on what these words mean and what studies are talking about can go a long way towards improved public understanding on health issues and quack medicine.

More responsible health and science journalism can go a long way towards bringing forth much-needed public understanding on how to differentiate between scientific and unscientific health claims.

Note: CAM and health science policy are huge topics, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of them, so I’ll definitely write about this topic again in a future post! Also, let me know if you have any feedback on this blog post! I appreciate any advice for improving my writing, sources, and argumentation for future posts.


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