Alternative medicine quacks deny efficacy of conventional medicine

Make no mistake about it, the promoters of alternative medicine are denialists. One of the more stunning examples of their denial of the efficacy of evidence-based medicine appeared in Newstarget with the headline The false gods of scientific medicine revealed: It’s a cult, not a science by Mike Adams.

Promoters of conventional medicine claim that all the drug marketing, FDA approvals, surgical procedures, chemotherapy and all other treatments are based on “hard science.” The term “science” is invoked with hilarious frequency: Science journals, science-based medicine, proven medical science and so on. As you might have guessed, however, there’s surprisingly little genuine science to be found in the common practice of conventional medicine. Rather, what passes for “science” today is a collection of health myths, half-truths, intellectual dishonesty, self delusion, fraudulent reporting and wishful thinking.

This is how doctors have come to believe the incredible: That food has nothing to do with health, that antioxidants will kill you, that herbs interfere with drugs, and that only drugs can treat or cure disease. It’s a cult-like belief system handed down by the high priests of conventional medicine, and if this intricate web of false beliefs was actually subjected to genuine scientific scrutiny, it would crumble into a thousand pieces of junk science and marketing propaganda.

It’s the usual denialist garbage. Conspiracy theories about drug companies, doctors, scientific conspiracies and the FDA. The straw man that doctors think that food has nothing to do with health is an egregious denial of all research done into nutrition. And his statement that herbs can’t interfere with drugs? Well, try taking St. John’s Wort and birth control sometime and see what happens. But my jaw dropped with this claim:

Chemotherapy has been scientifically proven to be worthless at curing cancer, enhancing quality of life or protecting the health of the patient. In fact, chemotherapy kills patients, and even the ones who survive it are left with permanent damage to their brain (“chemo brain”), kidneys, liver and other organs. Chemotherapy is a medical hoax with absolutely no scientific validity. The size of a tumor is not a measure of the degree of cancer that exists on a patient’s body, and shrinking a tumor is not a meaningful measure of a cancer treatment’s success.

Oh really? I wonder if I can find an example of chemotherapy extending life. Let’s see…

How about the phenomenal work by St. Judes on Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) and Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), two leukemias that kill thousands each year? Here is a chart of the survival rates of kids given improved chemotherapy regimens in clinical trials since the 1980s for AML:


And even more impressively for childhood ALL:


Now clearly, chemotherapy in the setting of these two diseases has not progressed to the point where we have a penicillin-like cure – but with the advent of genomic medicine practices by scientists like William Evans at St. Judes we are getting closer and closer to treatments tailored to specific patients. I thought of these two examples based on a talk I saw Evans give last year. And this isn’t with the advent of new chemotherapeutic drugs, much of the improvement seen already has been from genomic profiling of leukemia patients and tailoring of specific treatments to the individual using classic chemotherapeutic drugs.

To hear the entire field of oncology disparaged in this manner with no scientific basis, no science cited, and no proof is a perfect example of the dangerous denialism promoted by altie-med quacks. Just look at the progress made in ALL. In the 1960s, the diagnosis of ALL in a child was a death sentence, and the treatments had little effect on survival. Now 5-year survival has reached 90%. The same is true with dozens of different cancers. No we don’t have cures, and improvements are incremental, but to deny any improvement in survival and quality of life is denialism that isn’t just dishonest, it is dangerous.

Adams also attacks the use of biomarkers as a method of determining whether treatments are necessary, despite evidence that biomarkers, like blood pressure and cholesterol levels, are predictive of life expectancy. He minimizes the effects of reductions in mortality from things like 2 to 1 percent as a 1 percent decrease in mortality – as if that’s no big deal. But in the case of something like cardiovascular disease or breast cancer you’re talking about tens of thousands of deaths being averted.

People might like to think that altie medicine is a harmless diversion from real medicine, a relatively minor eccentricity or example of tolerable hucksterism. But I believe it is denialism in its most dangerous form. The best writing on the topic, I believe, comes from Stephen Novell at Neurologica with his post on the double standard of alternative medicine.

The biggest problem with so-called complementary and alternative medicine – CAM (a misleading name for it is neither complementary nor a legitimate alternative) is that its proponents overtly seek to create a double standard in medicine. In an editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM Sept. 17, 1998 pg 839-841), then current editor in chief Marcia Angell and former editor in chief Jerome P. Kassirer wrote: “There cannot be two kinds of medicine – conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works, and medicine that may or may not work.” They got it exactly right

There are those with a libertarian political bent who argue that all this quality control is not necessary, that the free market can sort it all out, or that individual freedoms are more important than protecting the public from bad medicine. Although I strongly disagree with this position, I grant this is largely a political position – which means it is partly a personal choice. What do you value more – protection or freedom?

I bring this up because many in the CAM camp use the notion of healthcare freedom to promote their agenda. However, they are not honest in what they are truly advocating. At least the libertarians are upfront with their political views. CAM proponents, rather, use healthcare freedom not to argue that the standard of care should be reduced in favor of more freedom, but to create a double standard for CAM. I don’t know of anyone who is arguing for less education for doctors or eliminating licensure. Likewise, I have never heard a CAM proponent argue that pharmaceuticals should be freed from FDA regulation (while libertarians by contrast often do say this).

Sixteen states in the US have so-called healthcare freedom laws. Essentially what these laws do is create a double standard for CAM. The wording in each state is different, but their effect is the same – a practitioner of CAM cannot have their license taken away or acted against because they are practicing substandard care as long as that care is deemed “alternative.” In other words, if an MD is practicing “conventional” medicine but what they are doing is significantly below the standard of care (it is demonstrably unsafe or ineffective), the state can act against their license. If, however, the same physician practices the same incompetent medicine, but labels it “alternative” they are immune from any action.

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 created a double standard for supplements by creating an absurd legal entity known as “structure and function” claims. Essentially this law, promoted by CAM enthusiasts under the justification of more freedom, removed supplements from FDA control. Now, herbs and supplements can be marketed without first having to prove safety. Further, manufacturers can make health claims for their products without having to do any research or provide any evidence. So this is an overt example of removing the standard of science, logic, and evidence as a mechanism of quality control in medicine.

I think the worst can be avoided, however, if the public is made acutely aware of the true nature of CAM promotion – that it entails the creation of a double standard where the public’s safety and provisions for quality control are being sacrificed so that CAM practitioners can have the freedom to do whatever they want without the burden of meeting the standard of care that has evolved over the last 100 years.

It is a must-read. Altie-medicine has created a framework in which they can get away with quackery, dishonesty and lies without being impeded by any regulation, scientific rigor or oversight. Amazingly, this isn’t enough for altie-med practitioners, as proponents of altie-medicine attack the scientific basis of real medicine that is carefully monitored, meets a standard of care, and is based on clinical evidence. At some point we will have to acknowledge the barbarians are at the gates, they are starting to teach altie-medicine in medical schools, and at risk is the scientific underpinnings of medicine.