"Science, Faith, and Alternative Medicine" by Ronald W. Dworkin, in Policy Review (Aug. & Sept. 2001), 1030 15th St., N.W., 11th fl., Washington, D.C. 20005.
Skeptics can't understand the allure of alternative medicine. Why would patients flock to therapies unproven by science? Yet Americans spent more than $21 billion on alternative medicine in 1997, and last year spent more money for alternative therapies than they spent out-of-pocket in the entire mainstream medical system. Dworkin, a physician and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, perceives a logical basis for the migration: "Patients are fleeing the medical profession because doctors concentrate on rational knowledge at the expense of life's mysteries," he writes. "Organized religion concentrates exclusively on the unknown, and therefore seems to know nothing. In alternative medicine, people have discovered a compromise."
In the past, when people suffered "the two great misfortunes in life ... illness and gloom," doctors, and also clergymen, offered sympathy, counsel, and consolation. Today, urged on by insurance companies, physicians put their patients into diagnostic categories and rush them through, rather than bear out each individual's complaints. Few doctors have the time or patience for such niceties today.
Alternative therapies--including acupuncture, herb therapy, biofeedback, magnet therapy, and chiropractic -- attract patients disaffected by conventional medicine as well as those dissatisfied by religion's solutions. In Dworkin's view, practitioners of alternative therapy appeal to patients because they synthesize the most attractive aspects of medical science and religion. "Because alternative medicine is not confined by the limits of rational or testable knowledge, its powers of explanation are enormous, and patients leave...thinking that their troubles have real spiritual significance."
Many of these alternative therapies may depend upon the placebo effect, a phenomenon long recognized among medical professionals. …