ALTERNATIVE TREATMENT : Maybe Snake Oil Works

By Callahan, Sidney | Commonweal, November 5, 1999 | Go to article overview

ALTERNATIVE TREATMENT : Maybe Snake Oil Works


Callahan, Sidney, Commonweal


If my eyes don't stop watering and itching I'm going to go to an acupuncturist. But will I tell my doctor? He, God bless him, has cured my hyperthyroid condition (Graves disease) by burning out my thyroid with radiation and prescribing a daily dose of Synthroid. Yet this medicine doesn't deter the antibody that attacks my eyes.

A chronic health problem that medicine has trouble controlling presents a perfect occasion to try alternative medicine or AM. I won't be alone. In 1997 more than 42 percent of Americans used some form of alternative medicine, and consumers made 629 million visits to alternative practitioners. They paid more than $27 billion out of pocket to do so. When asked why they use AM, patients, a.k.a. clients or consumers, report that it works.

In the past I would dismiss such reports out of hand. As my doctor still does. Yet, I too am a science-loving true believer in reason. When I appeared in my doctor's office with a copy of The Skeptical Inquirer I scored points, then doubled my advantage by being the first of his patients to recognize the picture of Richard Feynman, the physicist, hanging next to his desk. Yes, I reported, I always quote Feynman to my students, "Science is about not fooling yourself." (Of course, I also quote Saint Augustine who said that one thing he could know for sure is that he didn't want to be deceived.) I told my doctor that I read atheistic humanist magazines because I was a religious believer and felt duty bound to do so. You know, like Baron von Hugel who claimed Christians should study science in order to cultivate a healthy, nonsuperstitious faith. Hence I am now willing to explore AM only because it seems reasonable to do so.

While I have changed my mind, AM's critics still hurl charges of "quackery," "snake oil," a "holistic hoax"-an irrational aberration that is dangerously unscientific. But many others in conventional medicine have begun to accept some forms of AM and to collaborate with alternative practitioners. Today we hear of integrated medicine or CAM, complementary and alternative medicine. Why the change?

Cynics assert that a power struggle between conventional medicine and AM is taking place motivated by money. Consumer pressure and booming profits explain movements to integrate AM into conventional medical systems. Granted, the history of American medicine provides many instances of greed in which one group of powerful physicians organized to drive out other differently trained physicians and health practitioners by labeling them "unscientific." In other unacknowledged maneuvers, treatments pioneered by AM are co-opted and assimilated into conventional medicine.

Surely struggles over money, status, and hegemony appear always and everywhere, but something else appears to be going on in the acceptance of CAM. There's been a change in the intellectual weather. Modern medicine's positivist vision of a deterministic materialistic world is cracking under the strain of new discoveries in physics, psychology, and the philosophy of science. Good-by, Descartes; so long, Newton; farewell, dualism. The body can no longer be confidently assessed as a biological machine completely separated from the workings of the mind and consciousness. Repairing physiological mechanisms is different from healing a person.

Many conventional physicians are renewing their interest in the art of medicine and healing. …

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