Trick or Treat! Alternative Medicine Book Review in the Journal

Today’s Journal is worth a read for this important development: something reasonable actually appeared in the Opinions section! Scott Gottlieb, one of the AEI’s ogres, penned a review of Trick or Treatment, a book on America’s obsession with alternative medicines, by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. This apparently is not your typical rant against alternative medicines. Gottlieb notes:

…Based at the University of Exeter in England, [Dr. Ernst] leads a research group that has spent 15 years studying alternative remedies, trying to separate snake oil from science. Mr. Singh, his co-author, is a science journalist whose books include “Fermat’s Enigma” and “Big Bang.” Together they conclude, after cataloging the evidence, that most of the popular forms of alternative medicine are “a throwback to the dark ages.” Too many alternative practitioners, they say, are “uninterested in determining the safety and efficacy of their interventions.”

Why do Americans stick to alternative medicines? The answer given by the authors is one observed my many Sciencebloggers:

“Alternative medicine is not so much about the treatments we discuss in this book,” the authors write, “but about the therapeutic relationship. Many alternative practitioners develop an excellent relationship with their patients that helps to maximize the placebo effect of an otherwise useless treatment.” To bring all treatments in line with rigorous science, an “excellent relationship” between doctor and patient is a good place to start.

I only have one, general observation about these remedies and their hype: being in California, it’s interesting to meet so many people who are very skeptical of the Pharmaceutical industry’s claims that at the same time gobble vitamins and unknown (probably fully leaded) “ancient”/”herbal”/”natural” remedies that make totally outlandish health claims. I think this is attributable to Ernst & Singh’s observation about managing excellent patient relationships. It makes no sense to be so skeptical of big pharma while being an evangelist of enzyte.


  1. Alexandra

    And so it goes; Christina Applegate, who recently underwent treatment for breast cancer, told Good Morning America

    I asked them, ‘What do I do now? What — what is it that I do? I get a doctor, I get a surgeon, I get an oncologist? What do I do?’ ”
    Then she “immediately made those appointments and immediately called around for … someone to start teaching me how to live macrobiotically.”

    How long before they just cut to the chase and a macrobiotic diet cured her of terminal cancer?

  2. Despard

    You might be interested to know that Singh is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association after writing an article in the Guardian (which they pulled, but which you can find here).

    Apparently, and this has been echoed all over the skeptical blogosphere, chiropractors prefer legal action to evidence. (Got this from Holfordwatch via Bad Science)

  3. As I told an relative who was into herbal woo… The hemlock that Socrates took was a 100% all natural herbal extract too. Didn’t do much good for him.

  4. I won’t eat food made with 100% organic all natural almond extract. I’m good with the artificial almond extract. I won’t even try the other. Most of the woo wooers wouldn’t know why there is a significant and important difference.

  5. Curious: why “America’s obsession”? Singh and Ernst are British, and there’s plenty of woo to be found in the UK. Is the focus on Americans actually in the book, as this article states, or the review? (I haven’t read it yet, but definitely will when it turns up here in paperback.)

  6. Anonymous

    @Cath the Canberra Cook,

    The book ranges over the UK, Europe and the Americas. It is dedicated to Prince Charles, one of Britain’s leading advocates of quackery.

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