Wednesday, October 25, 2006

On alternative medicine

I liked this article about how research refutes the claims of various alternative medicines. It really bothers me how pharmaceutical companies get cast as villains while people will go ahead and trust alternative treatments without any kind of reliable scientific testing. I'm reminded of this Onion article, "Revolutionary New Insoles Combine Five Forms of Pseudoscience."

Have you seen this supposed health supplement "Airborne" that comes in a friendly, cartoon-covered box with the reassuring words, "Created by a School Teacher?" First off, why should I expect a schoolteacher to be an expert on health supplements? Shouldn't "Created by a Pharmaceutical Researcher" carry more weight? Obviously teachers come into contact with a lot of germs from students, but I would imagine one would build up some immunity after a while anyway.

The directions for this thing seem like a scam, too. How often do they recommend you take it? "Take Airborne a day or two before entering crowded places like airplanes, movie theaters or offices." "Many people do take one Airborne as a daily dietary supplement." Judging from their online pricing, that would come to about $300 a year. But how many times every year do you enter a crowded place and not get sick? I'm in an office nearly every day, and I caught a cold only once over the past year. That's not very much to begin with. But for eleven and a half months, my "do nothing" approach worked. If I were inclined to believe in Airborne and had been taking it, it might have sounded impressive to some if I were to go around saying I had taken it every day for nearly a year and hadn't gotten sick. Even including the last two weeks, where I did get sick, I imagine "I took Airborne every day for a year and only got sick once" could sell it for some people. That's how anecdotal evidence works. Most of the time, sure, you'll take it and not get sick. But that's because you usually won't get sick anyway.

If they were really interested in producing a product with verifiable results, they'd do scientific tests and actually come up with real evidence, not just anecdotes. If they're so confident their product works, why not test it so that they'll know for sure? Because it's a lot easier to cook something up in your kitchen and sell it with advertising, friendly cartoons, and gullibility, that's why.

Update: I knew I'd seen the cartoonists' work before; it's Lloyd Dangle, creator of the Troubletown strip found in alt-weekly newspapers. Dangle's got a blog entry comparing his work with the knockoffs on the boxes of drugstore generic brands. Of course, it's standard practice for the generic brands to copy the look and feel of the name brand, but it's pretty funny comparing Dangle's masterwork of commercial art with the cheap knockoffs (which, I'm sure, work just as well or as poorly as the original).


At Wednesday, October 25, 2006 at 12:21:00 PM PDT, Anonymous clynne said...

After I messed up my knee and it wasn't getting better, one of the things I decided to try on the basis of "I haven't seen any research saying it's dangerous" was glucosamine & chondritin.

I've got a bottle of it, it cost me $5. It doesn't seem to have made any difference, but I'm going to keep taking it (along with my daily vitamins, which do in fact make me feel better), but only because throwing it away seems silly.

There was a brief period where I was getting a little better, but now that I've had the (annoyingly delayed through bureaucracy) medical professionals taking a look at it, I can identify the key healing factor there having been "rest."

Ginseng, though. Ginseng is one of those that as much as I try to believe the research that says it doesn't work, well, it does. I feel indefinably better when I'm taking ginseng. The problem is that it costs too much; it bothers me to pay $15 or $20 for a bottle of stuff that research says is just a placebo. So I don't take it any more.

Anyway, what I'm saying is, I wish more people who were into so-called alternative medicine would supplement that with their own experimentation and research, and most importantly, continue to go to their scientific western doctors during the process.

It's not all the fault of the gullible, or of the snake-oil salesmen, though. Scientific medicine is *expensive* and that's hard for a lot of people. There's no good solution for that. It's also bureaucratic and slow, which I think is a bigger tragedy. Surely there is some way to make it easier for people to get the care they need in a timely fashion. I'm not sure what it is, but it sure makes me mad that I had to wait three weeks due largely to paperwork in order to get into Physical Therapy.

At Wednesday, October 25, 2006 at 1:01:00 PM PDT, Blogger Adam Villani said...

Yeah, I don't completely dismiss the possibility that some of these things may work. But I wish people would be more skeptical and more scientific about the results.

At Wednesday, October 25, 2006 at 11:38:00 PM PDT, Blogger Arb said...

Brigid, though I make fun of her mercilessly for it, is an Airborne believer. The funny thing is, in general, she's skeptical of alternative medicine in general, but when it comes to cold-suppression things, she'll try anything.

Then again, I don't have to spend 8 hours a day with 15 9-year-old snot-mongers, so what do I know? :)

At Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 6:44:00 AM PST, Blogger Paul C. said...

Did you hear that the courts recently decided that Airborne was essentially useless, and now they'll have to reimburse buyers to the tune of roughly $23 million? When you're right, you're right.


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