The New Snake Oil

March 4, 2009

An article in the Chicago Tribune (January 14, 2009) heralded “Doctors going alternative.” Written by Julie Deardorff, it affirmed that mainstream physicians are increasingly employing treatments like acupuncture—collectively what is called “holistic,” “complementary,” “alternative,” or “integrative” medicine.

The article quotes New Age physician Andrew Weil, whose gullibility once led him to believe Uri Geller could bend metal with “psychic” power. (See James Randi,   The Truth About Uri Geller , 1975, pp. 61–86.) Weil told the   Tribune , “The public has been on board for some time,” regarding integrative medicine. “The professionals are harder to win over.”

Right. Those “conventional doctors” from the “conservative medical establishment”—reports Deardorff with biased language—want evidence. Not good New Agers, are they? They will concede that acupuncture may bring relief to certain individuals with certain conditions, such as chronic pain or stress, but they are suspicious that the effect has anything to do with the mystical   Qi (   chi , “vital energy”) attributed to acupuncture. They are also suspicious when they learn that similar success may come with any of an astonishing array of treatments, ranging from   abhyanga (a “very complete massage” using “herbalized” oil) to zone therapy (which can include attaching clothespins to patients’ fingertips). (See Jack Raso’s invaluable book,   The Dictionary of Metaphysical Healthcare , published by the National Council Against Health Fraud, 1996.)

Just to mention some of the acupuncture-like variants, there are the following: acupuncture cupping (employing vacuum from a cupping glass), acupuncture imaging (describing palpated zones to the patient in “energetic” terms to facilitate “bodymind integration”), osteopuncture (in which the needle touches the bone), auricular acupuncture (stimulating acupoints—of varying proposed locations—on the outer ear), acupressure (which foregoes the needles), reflexology (an acupressure variant involving pressing “reflex areas” on the feet), acupressure massage, Acu-Powder treatment (applying powdered herbs to acupoints), acupressure touch (gentle acupressure), and others. There are even acupoint bloodletting and acupoint therapy (counseling based in part on acupuncture theory).

Has anyone tried acu-snakeoil? I don’t see why it wouldn’t work—almost anything may be beneficial for some conditions in some people if they can be persuaded that it can work. One “medical intuitive” (Carolyn Myss,   Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can , 1997) encourages people to believe: “There are no wrong choices. Every choice I believe in is an effective means of healing.” She, like some New Age physicians, is offering the old feel-good remedies of “spirituality,” the power of positive thinking, and the placebo effect.

Various ailments—especially chronic pain—are known to be highly responsive to the power of suggestion, whether it takes the form of faith healing, “alternative” medicine, hypnosis, or placebo medication—the main requisite for curative effects being the patient’s belief in the practitioner’s assurances. Medical doctors taking advantage of the placebo effect is one thing; their endorsement of quackery is another—with potentially dangerous consequences.