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In the blogosphere, attacks on alternative medicine from questionable sources


By Joe Perez

At first, I saw no reason that I should link to this blog post by a pseudonymous blogger who calls himself Orac. He claims to be a surgeon/scientist, and I have little doubt that he is. He is skeptical about all complementary/alternative medicine, which he likens to The Secret and New Age woo-woo nonsense.

At his Respectful Insolence blog, he writes:

…CAM [complementary alternative medicine] is nothing more than placebo medicine. It makes it easier for me to remind people that intentionally practicing placebo medicine is unethical (because it requires lying to the patient) and paternalistic, just like 60 years ago when conventional doctors did actually order placebos for patients. In a perfectly Orwellian turn of phrase, advocates of “health freedom” and CAM advocates are in essence advocating a return to that sort of paternalism. As I’ve pointed out before, CAM cloaks itself in rhetoric suggesting that it “empowering” patients to “take control” of their health. In actuality it denies them the most important tool to do that: A appraisal of the rationale behind a proposed treatment, along with an assessment of its potential benefits and risks based on science, not fantasy. Instead, it substitutes tooth fairy science, pre-scientific vitalism, and utter faith in the practitioner for science and reason.

So calling advocates of alternative medicine unethical peddlers of fantasy with Orwellian delusions is “respectful insolence” now?

I’m not saying that he doesn’t make a good point about the Placebo Effect, and I’m not saying that there isn’t some flakiness to some New Age thinking and some ways in which alternative/ complementary/ integrative medicine is practiced. There certainly is, but there are also professional standards and evolving wisdom. And there is also quackery among surgeons and standards by which the inadequate must be expelled from the practice.

This post is pretty much what you would expect from many mainstream surgeons, whose occupation tends to favor individuals with a certain sort of subjectivity and way of looking at the world which biases them in ways which create blind spots to more subtle, non-rational dimensions of reality. If they can’t understand it logically or see it under a microscope, to them it ain’t real. Like I said, I wasn’t going to link to the post, which didn’t say anything new, even as it said old stuff pretty darn well. World Spirituality makes room for a spectrum of divergent health modalities — traditional, modern, complementary, and integral — based on what works, not an ideological commitment which paints all but Western approaches as “unethical.”

But then I thought: what really bugs me about this post is that he writes under a psuedonym. What an odd thing to be bothered by! While pseudonymous writing is occasionally justified (as when an individual faces political oppression or social ostracism), it is very odd that a respected scientist and surgeon would take the very risk-adverse move (some would say cowardly and unprofessional) of refusing to give his name.

The story I have about the connection between the surgeon’s anonymity and his viewpoint is that he knows that if his name is connected to his writing — what he says AND the way he presents it, which comes off a bit as an arrogant know-it-all, condescending to everyone who thinks differently — that his business will suffer and people will respect him less. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my best guess. Pseudonyms shield writers from reality, giving us the illusion of safety when it only puts us into our own sort of “fantasy.”

But if only Orac would sign his real name, then his patients could see what he really believes, and (if they stayed with him) they could educate him about the experiences they have had with alternative medicine or faith-based healing. Then he could see that you don’t have to be ignorant or flaky in order to think that it’s all right to look beyond narrow Western medicine in terms of understanding dimensions of healing not yet well understood by the mind constituted by a narrow view of rationality.

If only.