The Silver Bullet. The Magic Pill. The Cure For What Ails Ya. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a miracle drug that could instantly cure us of whatever illness we might have? “Colds? Muscle pain? TB? Gonorrhea? Cancer? Pop this pill and call me in the morning.”
Sadly, no such thing exists (yet). The human body is an extremely complicated piece of machinery (Needlessly complicated in fact, that’s why it’s improbable that we’re intelligently designed, ok creationists?), and drugs that have a beneficial effect on one part of your body will likely have a detrimental effect on another part of your body. No single drug will have a beneficial effect on your ENTIRE body, unless you consider death to be beneficial.
However, there are many people who swear by such miracle cures. Pretty much all of them fall into the category known as “Alternative Medicine”.
Alternative medicine has always existed, in one form or another, throughout human history. The principles have roughly stayed the same: “All maladies are caused by some sort of imbalance in our *insert magical, unmeasureable, undetectable energy/life force here*, and the cure is *insert modality here*.”
The thing is, they only became “alternative” after the dawn of science-based medicine. Our ancestors used all sorts of “treatments” and “remedies” for every ailment, from the mundane (leaves, flowers, ground up animal parts, etc) to the outright bizarre (spells, incantations, faith healing, etc).
But we can’t really blame our ancestors because back then, our knowledge base was pretty limited. In fact, as recently as the 1860’s, bloodletting was a pretty common treatment for a lot of ailments. Even something as simple as handwashing was seen as “ungentlemanly” by doctors and surgeons, no less.
But in this day and age of advanced scientific knowledge, near instant communications, fast transport and travel, fantastic technologies, and the incredible exchange of ideas afforded to us by the internet, there really isn’t much of an excuse to believe in Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (or SCAM, for short)…
…or is there?
Let’s try to analyze this question:
“If SCAM is bunk, then why is it so popular?”
I think it boils down to a few factors:
1. Confirmation bias:
Most people who use SCAM fall under one of two categories:
a. Those who already believe in them;
b. and those who are willing to try them either because of lack of finances, or because conventional medicine didn’t work for them.
Both these types almost always fall victim to confirmation bias. So what is confirmation bias?
Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way.
The first type already expects the SCAM modality to work, so they feel better after using it. The second type is desperate for something to work, and is therefore primed to believe that it is actually working.
2. The body heals itself (most of the time):
If you’re like the vast majority of people in the civilized world, you won’t go see your doctor until your fever/cold/cough/ache is at it’s worst. Also, a significant portion of that population goes to a SCAM practitioner, instead of a real doctor.
The thing is, if we are reasonably healthy, our bodies are quite capable of fighting off most illnesses. And since we go see these SCAM practitioners at the peak of our illness, any treatment they perform (or don’t perform) is almost guaranteed to “cure” you. Thus, giving the illusion that the homeopath, naturopath, reiki master, acupuncturist, chiropractor, touch therapist, etc. is the real deal.
Now I’m sure some SCAM proponent is saying ” AHA! So you’re admitting that those who go to real doctors also have this phenomenon going for them!”
Well yes, to a certain degree. You see, the placebo effect applies even to real medicine. So you get an actual benefit, PLUS the placebo effect. This is also the reason why in science, we have this thing called the “randomized, double blinded, controlled clinical trials” to separate the placebo effect from true efficacy, something no SCAM practitioner does.
3. Personal anecdotes trump impersonal data every single time:
We love hearing stories, especially stories delivered with conviction by a satisfied SCAM victim customer. Let’s face it: Hearing a feelgood story about how some miracle product cured a person of his/her cancer is far more compelling than some boring study written on a piece of paper by anonymous scientists from thousand of miles away. This is one of the big reasons why practically every form of SCAM relies on testimonials from satisfied
4. It feels good and is easy to understand:
Every successful SCAM modality is also very simple to understand. No technical knowledge is required. There’s no scary sounding drugs or hyper-complicated machinery to intimidate you. From vague and simple explanations of adjusting/restoring the balance of chi in your body to replenishing vibrational energy/bioenergy/life energy, just about anyone can understand it. Many SCAM modalities also incorporate soothing music, comfortable couches or beds, massages, and dim lighting to help a victim customer relax. As you might guess, a relaxed victim customer is more likely to report positive results.
And because of all of the above, many of us are quite eager to accept that these SCAM modalities work, despite the low quality of evidence that supports them. As I have mentioned before, most SCAM practitioners rely on testimonials and anecdotal evidence. They also love to cite poorly made studies, many of which are performed by themselves, and published in “pee-reviewed” (that’s not a typo) medical journals, which were made just to promote SCAMs.
5. Conspiracy theorists vs “Big Pharma”:
There is a general notion among the public that “Big Pharma” is out to get them and that Big Pharma is in bed with Big Bad Government to keep us sick in order to keep selling drugs. Many SCAM practitioners love to incite this particular fear and paranoia into potential victims customers. It’s easy to target “Big Pharma” as evil, because it’s seen as one single entity. Few people realize that in order for this “Big Pharma Conspiracy” to exist, everyone from the pharmaceutical companies’ top management to government officials, to doctors, to nurses, med techs, researchers, down to the clerks and support staff HAVE to be involved in the conspiracy. Few people stop to think that these people are human too, with their own friends and loved ones that they would like to keep free from illness.
Now, do I think pharmaceutical companies are benevolent and have only our wellbeing and best interests at heart? Of course not. As with any other business, the three main objectives of pharmaceutical companies are 1.) profit, 2.) Profit, and 3.) PROFIT. Given the choice of cutting costs and saving money vs spending a fortune on efficacy and safety trials, I’m pretty sure which path the pharmaceutical executives would rather take.
But this is why the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world. The FDA keeps a close eye on them. These companies spend billions upon billions of dollars on R&D, efficacy trials, and safety trials. They have to, otherwise they won’t have a product to sell. This is also why most real medicine costs a lot. In fact, the rules and regulations are so stringent that roughly 85% to 90% of the drugs being tested never get past the first and second phase of clinical trials. It is also interesting to note that Big Pharma actually PREFERS these super stringent rules and regulations that cost a lot of money, because it discourages startup competition, leaving only the big boys with fat wallets.
And no, the FDA is not perfect. Many defective products have still passed through it’s screening process. Some would say that this is unacceptable and the FDA sucks, but that would be like saying that Kobe Bryant is bad at free throw shooting because he only makes 84% of them. Also, once a defect is discovered (even relatively minor ones), it is immediately pulled out.
Compare and contrast with SCAM, which few people realize is ALSO a multi-billion dollar industry. The SCAM industry has a ridiculous reputation for being “all natural” (as if that means anything) and somehow “more caring and more personal”. We need to realize that these people also have profit as their primary motive. Otherwise, they wouldn’t charge for their treatments. The worst part is, this industry is NOT regulated at all. For an industry that frequently promises to “wash away the toxins”, many of their products have been found to contain hazardous materials.
We, as consumers, need to be more skeptical of fantastic claims. This is the only way we can weed out bad products from the good ones. As with almost every thing we encounter in life, it’s useful to always remember this adage:
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”