At the same time that some alternative medicines and therapies are being integrated into “mainstream” health care, the division between the two is also being drawn more thickly. Critical thinkers are getting more exasperated with therapies and non-medicines that have failed one fair scientific test after another, even as they become more popular and economically powerful. And people who sell such stuff are becoming more shrill and idealogical, routinely responding to criticism by showing their legal muscle instead of their evidence.1
But there’s no actual contradiction — there is no important division between two types of health care. Health is either cared for, or it is not.
It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you get there. If health is actually cared for, then it’s just health care, not “alternative” or “mainstream”! Alternative medicine can only be integrated into the mainstream to whatever extent it has proven that it actually does the job.
When a method of trying to care for health hasn’t proved that it actually cares for health, it is often called “alternative” — an obvious attempt to salvage it, as if a method of treating people can somehow still be considered “health care” even when it cannot be shown to help anyone, or hasn’t yet.
What if someone proposed that pure water could innoculate you against malaria … ridiculous, right? (Some people do, believe it or not.) It would have to be called “alternative” health care, wouldn’t it? Because mainstream health care sure as hell won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole!
Alternative health care proponents often declare that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” — that a medicine might be proven to work someday. Of course it’s possible that something unproven today could still be proven tomorrow, but you have to do that step before you get to call it health care. Treatment salesmen have to prove that their product or service isn’t harmful to people’s health or wasting their money.
And if years of experiments have failed to produce a shred of proof that something works, it usually doesn’t need “more study” — it usually just needs to be dropped.
I got this note from a reader one day, and it’s a sentiment I’ve heard a few times over the years. It’s a little gem of a quote, just packed with oxymoronic irony.
Some people find skepticism distasteful for some reason, as though it’s somehow sexier to be a gullible sucker. The irony is that they are arguing that all they really care about is results — “as long as it works.” Yet there are no scams that work, of course: either it’s a scam and it doesn’t work, or it works and so it’s not actually a scam.
If a therapy or a medicine works, great. The truth is out there. It shouldn’t be much problem to prove it. Either people get better or they don’t. Just do the science, and slowly but surely “mainstream” medicine will come knocking!
If it doesn’t work … you can’t save it just by calling it “alternative.” In this sense, there is no alternative health care — there is only health care, or it’s not actually any kind of health care. But alternative health care generally tries to set itself up as the “other” health care, and then asks us to believe — and sadly often succeeds — that science-rejection is a virtue.
But you can’t reject science. You just can’t. Rejecting science is like rejecting honesty. The world is the way it is, and science is the only reasonably reliable way of figuring it out. Yes, science is fallible, slow, and imperfect … but still much better than the alternatives (pun intended).
Without science, warts and all, there is just no solid ground at all — just the hopelessly messy human mind, wildly prone to ego-driven errors, illusions and delusions, flailing around, basically just guessing at what might work … and then, as inevitably as death and taxes, trying to charge you for it.