We present in this special, expanded issue seven timely articles on “The Health Wars: In the Trenches against Alternative Medicine.” So-called alternative medicine (or SCAM, the telling acronym used by medical scientist Edzard Ernst as the title of his most recent book) is all around us. It has managed to imbed itself into medical institutions, pharmacies, media, woo-woo culture, and beyond. It is many different things. This makes it difficult to criticize effectively. Ernst, one of our distinguished CSI fellows, notes that he has published “more papers on alternative medicine than any other researcher on the planet—and yet, I have never come across an alternative therapy that clearly and demonstrably outperforms conventional medicine.” This was quoted in our previous issue in a marvelous column (“Science Envy in Alternative Medicine,” July/August 2019) by physician and SI contributing editor and columnist Harriet Hall. A key passage by Hall in that column could serve as an introduction to this special issue of SI: “Alternative medicine embraces many things: treatments that have never been tested or have not been adequately tested; treatments that have been tested and shown not to work; treatments that are based on nonexistent phenomena such as human energy fields and acupoints; treatments such as homeopathy that would violate established scientific knowledge; and treatments that have been proven to work but that mainstream doctors have good reasons not to recommend.”
The articles in this issue make no attempt to cover the whole field of alternative medicine, as if that were even possible. They instead focus on some specific, even surprising, topics. Where they concern subjects we’ve written about before, they are of new manifestations or new promulgators. Our lead article is a good example.
We have all long admired and trusted National Geographic magazine. Its articles and photographs cover the world with great insight, and the magazine’s editors haven’t shied away from difficult topics. What are we to make, then, of six books and newsstand “book-azines” on natural healing remedies published by the National Geographic Society? Physician Victor Benson examines them all in this issue and finds that while they may have a few good qualities, they “are full of claims that lack evidence” and “don’t even meet minimum scientific standards.” The National Geographic Society should not sully its reputation with them, he says. In her own succinct review of the latest and longest of these books, Harriet Hall calls it “a bitter disappointment,” “unreliable,” “misleading, incomplete, and potentially dangerous,” and “a ‘natural’ disaster.” How did the National Geographic Society let this happen?
Medical researchers Cees N.M. Renkens and Thomas P.C. Dorlo of the Dutch Society Against Quackery return to our pages with the latest about the World Health Organization’s shameless embrace of traditional Chinese medicine, incorporating TCM into its forthcoming eleventh edition of International Classification of Diseases, slated to go into effect in 2022. This means that the world’s doctors may then report diagnoses such as bladder meridian syndrome and triple energized meridian dysfunction! (“Meridians” don’t exist except in the minds of TCM proponents.) We also now have “laser acupuncture,” as French physicist Sébastian Point describes in this issue, another “hijacking” of a modern technology by an ancient pseudoscience.
And so it goes. An endless parade of misleading and even nonsensical medical claims gussied up as real science and fooling not just the gullible but countless millions of well-meaning others worldwide. It seems typical of our times.