Alternative Medicine and the Truth
About Being “Scientific” and “Proven”
Alternative Medicine Digest
Discerning citizens should demand of conventional medicine experts that they prove
the science behind their medicine by demonstrating successful, nontoxic, and affordable
patient outcomes. Alternative Medicine and the Truth About Being “Scientific” and
It’s time to revise the scientific method to handle the complexities of alternative
medicine. The U.S. government has belatedly confirmed a fact that millions of Americans
have known personally for decades-acupuncture works. A 12-member panel of medical
“experts” recently informed the National Institutes of Health (NIH), its sponsor,
that acupuncture is “clearly effective” for treating certain conditions, such as
fibromyalgia, tennis elbow, pain following dental surgery, nausea during pregnancy,
and nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.
The panel was less persuaded that acupuncture is appropriate as the sole treatment
for headaches, asthma, addiction, menstrual cramps, and others. The NIH panel reported
that, in their view, “there are a number of cases” in which acupuncture works. As
the modality has fewer side effects and is less invasive than conventional treatments,
“it is time to take it seriously” and “expand its use into conventional medicine.”
These developments are, naturally, welcome, and the field of alternative medicine
should, by rights, be pleased with this progressive step. However, underlying the
NIH’s endorsement and qualified “legitimization” of acupuncture is a deeper issue
that must come to light. I refer to a presumption so deeply ingrained in Western
society as to be almost invisible to all but the most discerning eyes. The presumption
is that the “experts” of conventional medicine are entitled and qualified to pass
judgment on the scientific and therapeutic merits of alternative medicine modalities.
They are not.
The matter hinges on the definition and scope of the term “scientific.” The mainstream
media is continually full of carping complaints by supposed medical experts that
alternative medicine is not “scientific” and not “proven.” Yet we never hear these
experts take a moment out from their vituperations to examine the tenets and assumptions
of their cherished scientific method to see if they are valid. They are not. Medical
historian Harris L. Coulter, Ph.D., author of the landmark four-volume history of
Western medicine called Divided Legacy, first alerted me to a crucial, though unrecognized,
distinction. The question we should ask is whether conventional medicine is scientific.
Dr. Coulter argues convincingly that it is not. Over the last 2,500 years, Western
medicine has been divided by a powerful schism between two opposed ways of looking
at physiology, health, and healing, says Dr. Coulter. What we now call conventional
medicine (or allopathy) was once known as Rationalist medicine; alternative medicine,
in Dr. Coulter’s history, was called Empirical. Rationalist medicine is based on
reason and prevailing theory, while Empirical med-icine is based on observed facts
and real life experience-on what works. Dr. Coulter makes some startling observations
based on this distinction. Conventional medicine is alien, both in spirit and structure,
to the scientific method of investigation, he says. Its concepts continually change
with the latest breakthrough. Yesterday, it was germ theory; today, it’s genetics;
tomorrow, who knows?
With each changing fashion in medical thought, conventional medicine has to toss
away its now outmoded orthodoxy and impose the new one, until it gets changed again.
This is medicine based on abstract theory; the facts of the body must be contorted
to conform to these theories or dismissed as irrelevant. Doctors of this persuasion
accept a dogma on faith and impose it on their patients, until it’s proved wrong
or dangerous by the next generation. They get carried away by abstract ideas and
forget the living patients. As a result, the diagnosis is not directly connected
to the remedy; the link is more a matter of guesswork than science. This approach,
says Dr. Coulter, is “inherently imprecise, approximate, and unstable-it’s a dogma
of authority, not science.”
Even if an approach hardly works at all, it’s kept on the books because the theory
says it’s good “science.” On the other hand, practitioners of Empirical, or alternative
medicine, do their homework: they study the individual patients; determine all the
contributing causes; note all the symptoms; and observe the results of treatment.
Homeopathy and Chinese medi-cine are prime examples of this approach. Both modalities
may be added to because physicians in these fields and other alternative practices
constantly seek new information based on their clinical experience. This is the meaning
of empirical: it’s based on experience, then continually tested and refined-but not
reinvented or discarded-through the doctor’s daily practice with actual patients.
For this reason, homeopathic remedies don’t become outmoded; acupuncture treatment
strategies don’t become irrelevant.
Alternative medicineisproven every day in the clinical experience of physicians and
patients. It was proven ten years ago and will remain proven ten years from now.
According to Dr. Coulter, alternative medicine is more scientific in the truest sense
than Western, so-called scientific medicine. Sadly, what we see far too often in
conventional medicine is a drug or procedure “proven” as effective and accepted by
the FDA and other authoritative bodies only to be revoked a few years later when
it’s been proven to be toxic, malfunctioning, or deadly.
The conceit of conventional med-icine and its “science” is that substances and procedures
must pass the double-blind study to be proven effective. But is the double-blind
method the most appropriate way to be scientific about alternative medicine? It is
not. The guidelines and boundaries of science must be revised to encompass the clinical
subtlety and complexity revealed by alternative medicine. As a testing method, the
double-blind study examines a single substance or procedure in isolated, controlled
conditions and measures results against an inactive or empty procedure or substance
(called a placebo) to be sure that no subjective factors get in the way. The approach
is based on the assumption that single factors cause and reverse illness, and that
these can be studied alone, out of context and in isolation.
The double-blind study, although taken without critical examination to be the gold
standard of modern science, is actually misleading, even useless, when it is used
to study alternative medicine. We know that no single factor causes anything nor
is there a “magic bullet” capable of single-handedly reversing conditions. Mult-iple
factors contribute to the emergence of an illness and multiple modalities must work
together to produce healing. Equally important is the understanding that this multiplicity
of causes and cures takes place in individual patients, no two of whom are alike
in psychology, family medical history, and biochemistry. Two men, both of whom are
35 and have similar flu symptoms, do not necessarily and automatically have the same
health condition, nor should they receive the same treatment. They might, but you
can’t count on it.
The double-blind method is incapable of accommodating this degree of medical complexity
and variation, yet these are physiological facts of life. Any approach claiming to
be scientific which has to exclude this much empirical, real-life data from its study
is clearly not true science. In a profound sense, the double-blind method cannot
prove alternative med-icine is effective because it is not scientific enough. It
is not broad and subtle and complex enough to encompass the clinical realities of
alternative medicine. If you depend on the double-blind study to validate alternative
medicine, you will end up doubly blind about the reality of medicine. Listen carefully
the next time you hear medical “experts” whining that a substance or method has not
been “scientifically” evaluated in a double-blind study and is therefore not yet
They’re just trying to mislead and intimidate you. Ask them how much “scientific”
proof underlies using chemotherapy and radiation for cancer or angioplasty for heart
disease. The fact is, it’s very little. Try turning the situation around. Demand
of the experts that they scientifically prove the efficacy of some of their cash
cows, such as chemotherapy and radiation for cancer, angioplasty and bypass for heart
disease, or hysterectomies for uterine problems. The efficacy hasn’t been proven
because it can’t be proven.
There is no need whatsoever for practitioners and consumers of alternative medicine
to wait like supplicants with hat in hand for the scientific “experts” of conventional
medicine to dole out a few condescending scraps of official approval for alternative
Rather, discerning citizens should be demanding of these experts that they prove
the science behind their medicine by demonstrating successful, nontoxic, and affordable
patient outcomes. If they can’t, these approaches should be rejected for being unscientific.
After all, the proof is in the cure.