In recent years we have thankfully seen a resurgence in respect for science and more questioning and rejection of some of the more outlandish beliefs that have been popular for years. The social acceptance of atheism and the explosion in popular science writing online and in magazines and best-selling books have all been part of this.
But there has also been an impact the other way. The more strident the science fans and atheists become, the more many people are irked and even suspicious. Perhaps it makes more people cling to 'alternative' worldviews, seeing the scientists and writers as part of a bullying conspiracy.
I am angered by anti-vaccination groups and I struggle to empathise with and understand parents who don't vaccinate - but then I remember my own scepticism (due to lack of knowledge) when an anti-swine flu vaccine was developed so quickly, and when some batches of seasonal flu vaccine created adverse reactions in young children in 2010 (the problem was limited to a couple of bad batches and was not due to the vaccine itself, which is safe).
I thoroughly reject astrology, reiki, therapeutic touch and homeopathy, but I have been open minded (to some degree) on chiropractic, acupuncture and reflexology, as these at least seem to have some level of biological plausibility.
ChiropracticI saw a chiropractor fix my husband when his back went out some years ago. He woke up with his back having spasmed and 'stuck' and he was white and almost vomiting from pain. At that time I didn't realize chiropractic was alternative medicine. I thought it was a medical specialty, or an accepted therapy like physiotherapy. So I took him to a chiropractor. She showed me how he was all seized up on one side of his back, manipulated him a little, and he was fixed.
Of course I am sure a physiotherapist could have achieved the same result. But the chiropractor was still effective.
However, chiropractic for anything other than muscular-skeletal pain is completely implausible.
When my kids were babies in 2006 it became popular to take babies to chiropractors for 'colic'. I was appalled and amazed that anyone would take a baby to have its spine manipulated, or that any ethical practitioner would do such a thing, for a therapy that makes no sense at all.
HomeopathyWhen M had horrible reflux and screamed in pain, before the problem was diagnosed I bought a 'natural' medicine for 'colic' from a pharmacist. Only when I examined the bottle at home did I realise, amazed, that this popular medicine sold by a professional chemist was in fact a homeopathic waste of time and money. I tried it, but it did nothing, of course.
AcupunctureAcupuncture and reflexology have always made sense to me for the purposes of pain relief and nerve-related problems, because we know nerves are connected. You know that thing where you scratch your leg and feel a twinge somewhere else?
But acupuncture for weight loss, infertility, quitting smoking or anything else makes no sense at all.
In fact, the authors of 'Trick or Treatment' show how neither therapy is that effective, despite seeming plausible. Acupuncture seems to make sense because of its seeming relation to the nervous system, and this is how I had assumed it worked. But in fact the 'meridians' used by acupuncturists bear no relation to the actual nervous system, and needles are only inserted under the skin, not in nerve points. This was a surprise to me and I was a bit sad to read all this about acupuncture. The ideas of ancient Chinese wisdom and 4000 years of history are so nice it is hard to give them up.
Kung Fu Panda (Dreamworks)
ReikiReiki and therapeutic touch were debunked by a 12-year-old for an American school science fair project some years ago.
I have a friend who practices reiki, and without really discussing it we agree to disagree on such therapies. What I can say is my friend is a caring, empathetic and ethical person who does truly help people. She is gifted and intuitive in her reading of people and their ailments, and she never professes to be able to fix anything outside of her remit. She is also a qualified reflexologist and masseuse, and I can attest from experience she is very good at these therapies.
The allure of alternative medicine = the limitations of conventional medicineThe authors of 'Trick or Treatment' paint a very good picture of the allure of alternative therapies. Conventional doctors are often busy and not always good at listening, the appointments are only 15 minutes and specialists can be brusque and have limited knowledge outside their specialties. In contrast a homeopath, naturopath or hypnotherapist will spend much more time with the patient, listen empathetically, and will prescribe a holistic treatment specifically tailored for that person. If nothing else, the placebo effect is triggered and the patient also feels well looked after.
A couple of years ago my father found himself with severe, ongoing back pain. He already has a terminal illness and has had periods of pain, so his doctors - even his very good specialist - were somewhat dismissive. I do believe due to his age and underlying illness, his doctors did not give the same consideration to his pain that they would have given a younger, healthy patient. His pain was chronic. It altered his voice and his personality and often he could barely move.
I kept telling him he should ask for an x-ray. I thought he might have a slipped disc. He asked his doctor who said no, it was just muscular. I couldn't believe it. For the next few months every time I spoke to my dad I told him he needed an x-ray.
Who finally raised the alarm (apart from me)? An acupuncturist. She was feeling around his back and told him he had something strange sticking out of his spine, and said he needed an x-ray. He told his doctor who finally ordered an x-ray, and the problem was diagnosed: a large tumor on the spine that needed major surgery and months of physiotherapy afterward.
In this case, although acupuncture itself was no help, the acupuncturist certainly was.