I had quite a heated exchange with one of my best friends over the holidays. Normally, he’s almost as skeptical as I am, although probably a little more tolerant.
Apparently I hit a sore point, though. One of his family members recently became a practitioner of one of the alternative “therapies” that are all the rage these days; I don’t remember which one and it doesn’t really matter.
His contention was that many of these pseudoscientific practices are as effective as placebo, if you really believe in them. He doesn’t, but didn’t see any harm in it if it’s helping people.
I’ve written before about the harm of homeopathic vaccines (“Bad Science Watch targets Health Canada,” September 19, 2012), but being a critical thinker, I had to examine whether I was being unreasonable by painting all of these ineffective “treatments” with the same brush.
After all, the placebo effect is a real phenomenon. And, if I’m being honest, I don’t really care if consenting adults want to waste their money on quackery. And if that quackery helps the true believers believe they feel better, to each their own.
On principle, of course, I stand by my conviction that you should not have to believe in something for it to work. It should work on me just as well as it works on the true believer.
Or, maybe I’m not the best test case. My own bias may have the anti-placebo effect. But real medicine should work on everybody, or at least a statistically significant percentage of the population.
In any event, I’m not going to go around picketing acupuncture clinics or handing out peer-reviewed literature at homeopaths’ offices. If we allow this kind of quackery to gain legitimacy, though, next thing you know it will be covered by medicare and we all pay.
There are other problems, too. One alternative practice I’m not vehemently opposed to is naturopathy—although all too often these businesses also promote other magical thinking that has no foundation in reality.
In principle, though, there is nothing inherently wrong with, for example, herbal remedies. After all, many pharmaceuticals are derived from chemicals found in plants.
Whether you take it in its natural form or a pill, however, they are still chemical in nature. Many Canadians consult both science-based and alternative practitioners, but are embarrassed (rightfully so, in my opinion) to tell their doctors about the treatment they are getting from their alternative provider.
Doctors need to know, however, because, in just the same way pharmaceuticals can have unwanted interactions with each other, so too can pharmaceuticals with natural remedies.
And, many of these products, even if they do contain therapeutic ingredients, don’t contain enough to be effective. It’s a tricky world out there when it comes to health, especially when you’re not feeling well.
What I do fully and completely object to is government supporting questionable practices. Powerful lobby groups and manufacturers are managing to lend legitimacy to unproven remedies by eroding the regulatory framework for natural health products.
At the end of 2012, Bad Science Watch, the not-for-profit consumer advocacy group launched in the summer, was again in the news, again targeting Health Canada over the loosening of regulations.
“The new changes will make it easier for products to be licensed without safety and efficacy checks, allow for misleading advertising for products with sub-therapeutic doses of ingredients, and make manufacturing site inspections voluntary,” wrote Michael Kruse, Bad Science Watch chair in a press release. “The justification Health Canada offers for these changes include reducing “administrative burden” for manufacturers and shortening the product review process.”
The changes were based on recommendations by the Natural Health Product Program Advisory Committee, which is dominated by members of the industry such as Pfizer, Jamieson Laboratories and the Canadian Homeopathic Pharmaceuticals Association.
When agencies responsible for protecting the public become compromised by corporate interests, we might as well not have regulators at all.
This is becoming far too common with the Conservative government. In November, the Government of Canada also relaxed the regulatory framework for protecting our national waterways for the benefit of the oil and gas industry.
I am by no means a “Harper’s hidden agenda” conspiracy theorist, but his un-hidden agenda definitely appears to be dragging us backward rather than forward.
When public policy is based on finance rather good science, it is the public that will pay. Health care is already expensive enough without adding alternative medicine to the equation.