New Age Medicine – The Nature of the Cures
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2000
|Many people claim that new age medicine “works.” In this article Drs. Ankerberg and Weldon detail three reasons why it can seem to work, yet still be either ineffective or downright dangerous.
New Age Medicine: The Nature of the Cures
(From the Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs, Harvest House, 1996)
Perhaps the strongest endorsement for New Age medicine is the claim by thousands of followers that it “works.” Glowing testimonies can be multiplied for the diagnostic or curative powers of almost any technique. Because of this, three important facts need to be recognized: 1) given enough time, a degree of success is guaranteed for all quack treatments; 2) New Age health practices may operate merely as a placebo; 3) pragmatism is not the only issue: There may be hidden costs in New Age therapies. We will discuss these three areas in turn.
The Time Factor
Any fraudulent treatment can seem to work most of the time because most ailments, given sufficient time, will go away naturally. The simple fact is that most people do not die from their pains and illnesses. Thus, virtually any treatment, no matter how irrelevant (say, adding pulverized tree bark to one’s cereal), is certain to have its “success” stories. All a therapist has to do is make a treatment sound good. When a New Age method is “packaged” correctly with charts, machines, and scientific-sounding explanations, people may attribute a cure where none is deserved, and thus the treatment gets credit for the body’s natural recuperative power.
If we invented and correctly packaged a new treatment for certain common illnesses and claimed scientific backing, we could sell almost anything. If we claimed that sucking ice cubes at 75-minute intervals for 15 days would lower body metabolism one percent, reverse cell dehydration, cure inflammation, and bolster the immune system, some gullible people would believe us. Surely some, perhaps many. Testimonials would even come in for curing every ailment that would have gotten better in two weeks regardless.
It is hardly insignificant that New Age therapists usually tell their clients that in order to cure a given problem, a period involving weeks or even months of treatments may be needed. Because these healers are granted authority which they usually do not deserve, most people will begin treatment, not realizing that in the same amount of time the problem would disappear anyway.
The Placebo Factor
For New Age therapies to “work,” patients often must have dedication, the will to believe, and lots of patience. Clients who believe that a treatment will work, and therapists who are good counselors, account for an endless variety of “healings” that have nothing to do with a given New Age healing practice. Thus, New Age health techniques that do not work on the basis of their stated principles may nevertheless work on the basis of other principles. If a physical problem is emotional or psychological in nature, such as tension headaches, it may respond to psychological treatment, regardless of which New Age technique is employed.
Psychosomatic medicine and placebo research indicate that many complaints which are not organic will respond virtually to any treatment that helps a person believe he will be cured, or that promises to otherwise relieve the psychological or emotional conditions which produced the ailment. Anything from aromatherapy to Zen could be effective if the patient believes the “medicine” will work:
- Two things distinguish alternative medicine. The first is that it does not derive from any coherent or established body of evidence. The second, that it is not subjected to rigorous assessment to establish its value…. The variety and absurdity of “alternative” cures is a tribute to the power, largely unrecognized and unacknowledged, of the placebo effect….
In their Follies and Fallacies in Medicine, medical researchers Dr. Peter Skrabanek and James McCormick, M.D., with the Department of Community Health, Trinity College, Dublin, make some interesting observations about placebos. They point out that there are three possible explanations for an association between a given health treatment and cure. The first is that the treatment is actually beneficial. The second is the body’s own healing ability, in which case a person would have returned to health in the absence of any intervention. The third possibility is the placebo effect They point out that placebos are more potent than generally assumed. For example, among physicians who employ the placebo, their faith that placebos work plus the patient’s faith in the physician “exert a mutually reinforcing effect; the result is a powerful remedy that is almost guaranteed to produce an improvement and sometimes a cure.”
As a way of gauging the function of a placebo, they distinguish between the terms “illness” and “disease.” “Illness” is what people feel, whereas “disease” connotes the existence of a pathological process. They note that placebos do not affect the outcome of disease, but rather of illness. “Disease may or may not be accompanied by illness. Many diseases, including some that are potentially serious, are often symptomless. On the other hand, feeling unwell is not always the result of disease. Placebos have no effect on the progress or outcome of disease, but they may exert a powerful effect upon the subjective phenomena of illness, pain, discomfort, and distress. Their success is based on this fact.”
Skrabanek and McCormick also point out that placebos need not be a particular substance, but may be entirely verbal. One British physician tested 200 of his patients and divided them into two groups. The first group received a highly positive consultation, and were given a firm diagnosis and a strong reassurance they would speedily recover. Members of the second group were told by the physician that he was uncertain as to the cause of their symptoms, and that if the symptoms did not cease within a few days, to return for another appointment. “At the end of two weeks, 64 percent of those who had received a positive consultation were better as compared with only 59 percent of those who were offered uncertainty.”
They report another study of 56 students who were given either a pink or blue sugar pill and told that the pills were either a sedative or stimulant. Only three of the 56 individuals reported that the pills had no effect Those who received the blue pills thought they were taking a sedative, and 72 percent reported they felt drowsy.) Those who took two pills felt more drowsy than those who had taken one pill.) Also, 52 percent of the students who had taken the pink stimulant placebo said that they felt “less tired.” Fully one-third of the students reported side effects, including headaches, watery eyes, abdominal discomfort, dizziness, tingling extremities, and staggering gait.
Here are some other characteristics noted by Skrabanek and McCormick:
- Possibly as much as one-third of modern-day prescriptions are unlikely to have a specific effect on the diseases for which they are administered.
- Sir Douglas Black, a past president of Britain’s Royal College of Physicians, estimated that “only about 10 percent of diseases are significantly influenced by modern treatment.”
- In one study, patients suffering from angina that was limiting their physical activities agreed to participate in a particular experiment (This took place in 1956 and would not be accepted by ethical committees today.) Half received a sham operation, and half received a ligation of the internal mammary artery. “During the first six months after the operation, five out of eight of the ligated patients and five out of nine of the patients who had the sham operation were much improved according to their own evaluation. Striking improvement in exercise tolerance occurred in two patients who had had the sham operation.”
- The placebo effect is actually powerful enough to “raise doubts about the validity of many double-blind therapeutic trials.”
- In some cases, the effect of placebos can actually counteract the physical effect of certain drugs, and “a placebo can imitate a true pharmacological effect.”
- “Placebos may in some circumstances increase rather than decrease pain, depending upon the expectations of those administering the placebo.”
All of this leads Skrabanek and McCormick to conclude, “The placebo response is a complex phenomenon that is still little understood. The placebo effect contributes to every therapeutic success by helping to alleviate the symptoms of disease, and it is often the sole cause of the ‘cure’ of illness. Since the success and reputation of medicine is based upon its ability to cure, it is perhaps not surprising that doctors refer so seldom to the placebo effect, as a same effect underpins the success of every charlatan and quack.”
Their book also has an important chapter, “A Fist Full of Fallacies,” in which the authors explain 29 separate examples of faulty reasoning, arguments, and logic as they apply to medical treatment and cure. Perusing these fallacies shows how easy it is for people to assume that a particular New Age method has produced a cure when in fact it did nothing of the sort.
Because the power of the mind works in some cases, it would be a mistake to conclude that it works in all cases or to neglect the distinction between illness and disease mentioned above. For example, of the 6000-plus individuals oncologist Dr. Saul Silverman treated for cancer over a 25-year period, he has seen only about a dozen cases of spontaneous remission from true terminal cancer. These patients should have been dead within months, but they recovered and lived for many years without evidence of recurrence. When Silverman studied these cases to determine why the illnesses reversed themselves, he concluded that placebo, positive thinking, visualization, and suchlike had little or nothing to do with it. Why? One reason was because many of his patients progressed relentlessly to death even though they were extremely positive and expressed an absolutely heroic determination to live. On the other hand, he has also seen terribly depressed patients who had terminal cancers remitted. In the case of one individual, six years after his cancer was gone, “he was just starting to cheer up and admit that maybe he was going to be okay.”
Thus, if positive attitudes or the placebo factor were always important in the prevention or cure of most disease in general, large-scale studies should be able to find evidence that depressed people or those who disbelieve in placebos would have a higher incidence of disease. But this correlation has never been verified. In-deed, if faith per se is a truly powerful medicine that can cure virtually anything in the manner some proponents claim, then it is unlikely modern medicine would ever have developed to begin with. Instead, healing temples devoted to building people’s faith would exist where hospitals do now.
Some people may respond by saying that as long as a person’s symptoms are relieved, nothing else matters. If certain New Age methods act as placebos then, in their own way, they are still effective. Yes, but this misses the point. A truly neutral placebo administered by an orthodox medical doctor for legitimate medical reasons and a New Age treatment operating as a placebo are worlds apart.
New Age methods are generally fraudulent or unproven, and they may cause spiritual harm. But when a health-care service or a product is marketed, the public has the right to be assured of its safety and quality. When we purchase a cereal for its vitamin content, we should expect a nutritious product, not sawdust or nicotine manufactured to look and taste like cereal. No one would purchase a cereal labeled “100% sawdust” likewise, no one would pay 50 dollars for a bottle of sugar pills, unless they believed that the pills were effective medicine. Does anyone think that New Age therapists could effectively market their products as placebos? As a result, the therapies are sold on the basis of a variety of claimed principles that makes them sound legitimate.
Furthermore, it is one thing for a doctor to employ placebos occasionally for normal aches and pains if, based on his knowledge of the client, this would be as effective as an actual medicine and would prevent possible side effects. But it is courting disaster to employ only placebos in serious organic illness. Thus, when an M.D. administers a placebo, the patient is still under the supervision of a qualified physician. But when patients are given New Age treatments that operate as placebos, they may get more than they bargained for.
Many things work and yet are still dangerous: terrorism, drugs like heroin and cocaine, nuclear bombs, consumer fraud, prostitution, abortions. All these are effective. They “work,” but they are also dangerous. Whether it is drug addiction, jail terms, unexpected complications, or death, a price is paid. The same is true for New Age medicine. It may “work” and still be dangerous. A delayed diagnosis or a misdiagnosis may cost a person dearly in permanent injury or even death, even though initially the technique seemed to be working.
Thus, widespread use of these methods not only endangers the nation’s health quality and health standards, but it also promotes an irrationalism that can spill over into other areas of people’s lives. Realizing that New Age medicine is comprised of 1) highly questionable techniques, 2) irrational methods, and 3) occult philosophies and practices, the idea that it “works” is irrelevant. What one receives in exchange for the “cure” may not be worth the price.
Pragmatism and Its Problems
Because New Age medicine is undergirded by pragmatism (“it works”), this forces an irrational and often self-justifying approach to New Age treatments.
Since publication of coauthor Weldon’s New Age Medicine, he has received numerous letters from Christians and non-Christians who take issue with his critical approach expressed toward unorthodox or fringe methods of treatment, such as unsound chiropractic, homeopathy, iridology, therapeutic touch, and applied kinesiology. The common elements in most of these letters are instructive:
- People accepted the irrational aspects of a method without asking whether it could be effective on the basis of its stated principles.
- They ignored scientific information that disproved the medical effectiveness of the treatment.
- They redefined the occult aspects of a practice as something divine, or they appealed to supposedly unknown “scientific” laws or phenomena of the creation.
- They claimed to know that the treatment was sound because it worked for them personally, and they appealed to alleged miraculous cures that conventional scientific medicine was unable to produce.
These responses indicate four false approaches to New Age medicine:
- an unwillingness to research a practice before adopting it—laziness
- the will to believe in spite of contrary scientific data—blind faith
- a rationalizing and Iegitimizing of the mystical and the occult on the basis of entirely unknown factors—speculation
- a personal bias in favor of the method merely because it “worked”—pragmatism
An article by Karl Sabbagh, author of The Living Body, discusses the issue of why fringe medicine “works.” In his article “The Psychopathology of Fringe Medicine,” he correctly affirms that “when it works, it works for none of the reasons given by fringe practitioners themselves.”
Almost overnight almost anyone could be guaranteed a successful New Age healing practice, regardless of the method used or its effectiveness, because of three undeniable facts: 1) the relatively benign nature of most illnesses treated, 2) the natural variability of disease, 5) the psychosomatic aspect of many ailments that respond to a placebo.
Furthermore, as Sabbagh notes, even with genuinely serious disease there are usually periods of remission when a patient feels better and has actually improved. This is also true even for fatal diseases, like cancer, when the overall trend is usually downward. Disease variability like this can be used to great benefit by New Age practitioners, regardless of the short- or long-term outcome. Thus, if the patient begins to improve from natural remission, the therapist can claim the treatment is effective. If the patient remains stable and doesn’t get worse, the therapist can claim the treatment has arrested the disease. If the patient gets worse, the therapist can claim that either the treatment or dosage must be increased or revised, or that the patient hasn’t been treated long enough for the treatment to work. After all, unless it is a fatal illness, the patient will get better sooner or later anyway. And even if the patient dies, the therapist can claim that he started the treatment too late, or that the patient must not have been following instructions properly. The New Age therapist always wins.
Sabbagh also observes that there is a natural tendency in each of us to ascribe cause and effect where none exist. This may be related to simple ignorance about the nature of disease, which in turn can lead to a false perception about the nature of a cure. “Most of us are just not familiar enough with probability figures or the natural history of disease to make the sort of informed judgments that apply in the assessment of therapeutic effectiveness.”
By now it should be obvious that any person with any ailment could walk into the office of a reflexologist, homeopathist, acupuncturist, Iridologist, applied kinesiologist, unsound chiropractor, or shaman and all the methods employed could be “effective.” But because each of these techniques claims to work on entirely different, or even conflicting principles, it must also be obvious that the methods themselves are not producing the cure.
When a treatment works or seems to work, it is vital to know why. If we fail to answer that question, we may waste valuable time and money, encourage an irrational approach to medicine, support a form of institutionalized dishonesty, encourage dangerous forms of occult practice and philosophy, or even cause our own death or that of another.
- Peter Skrabanek, James McCormick, Follies and Fallacies in Medicine, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1990, p. 105.
- Ibid., p. 15.
- Ibid., pp. 13-14.
- Ibid., p. 14.
- Ibid., p. 17.
- Ibid., p. 15.
- Ibid., p. 17.
- Ibid., p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 21.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Ibid., p. 25.
- Ibid., p. 20.
- Ibid., p. 25.
- Kurt Butler, “ A Consumer’s Guide to ‘Alternate Medicine,’” Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1992, p. 117.
- Ibid., p. 117.
- (Karl Sabbagh, “The Psychopathology of Fringe Medicine,” The Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 10, no. 2, Winter 1985-86, p. 155).
- Ibid., p. 158.