Alternative medicine: no alternative at all


“You know, if conventional medicine hasn’t worked, there are alternatives you can try”.

A friend said this to me recently, referring specifically to our vitalistic, magical friend homeopathy.  I’ve heard the same sentiment repeated many times with regard to any number of so-called alternative medicine practices – acupuncture, naturopathy, reflexology and more.  The usual suspects.

When in a charitable mood, you could describe these practices as “unproven modalities”.  I’d be more inclined to describe them as dangerous pseudo-scientific quackery, since they lack any plausibility or consistent evidence-base to suggest efficacy.  But maybe that’s just me.

The point is, given that these modalities lack consistent evidence and a plausible mechanism of action, in no sense can any of them be reasonably described as an alternative form of medicine.  However, the fact that these modalities are constantly referred to, even by skeptics, as “alternative medicine”, represents a significant propaganda victory for the alt-med advocates.

As skeptics who have read up and researched this stuff, we understand that alt-med actually represents no alternative at all – except perhaps to good health.  At the same time, our use of the phrase “alternative medicine” to describe these modalities is actually compounding the problem. The words themselves, “alternative medicine”, represent an implicit endorsement of the status of alt med as a valid, alternative, form of medicine.  Which, of course, it isn’t.  And while we may understand that when we refer to alternative medicine in our books, blogs and podcasts – the people to whom we must relate truth about these ideas may not.

So what can we do to tackle this problem?  My solution is that we discourage the use of the phrase “alternative medicine” when referring to unproven and unscientific medical practices in skeptical literature.  Just as we use the word “pseudo-science” to describe something which pretends to be a scientific discipline, without adhering to appropriate scientific methodology, so we should refer to something which pretends to be a medical intervention, while lacking plausibility or evidence to support claims of efficacy, as a “pseudo-medicine”.

Pseudo-medicine is surely a more accurate description of this quackery than “alternative medicine” ever was, and more importantly it lacks any implication that it is a valid alternative to anything.

So how about it?

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  1. #1 by Marsh on May 22, 2009 - 13:16

    Interesting idea! I agree that Alternative Medicine is a real PR win for the woo-peddlers.

    Woo-peddlers… if only we could get that accepted as the new name for Alt Med…!

  2. #2 by Mykie on May 22, 2009 - 15:51

    “pseudo-medicine” I likes it! Plus, it fits in with the whole pseudo-science thing…we don’t call it “alternative-science”…(but it does sum it up nicely).

    I also vote for rebranding “intergrated health care” (www.fih.org.uk/index.html) as “real medicine plus a pile o’ crap”

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