Naturopathy = Outdated Science + Pseudoscience

By Michael Edmonds 31/01/2012 21

Often when the topic of the various forms of pseudoscience come up, it is fairly easy to dismiss homeopathy, reiki etc as absurd therapies. However, when it comes to naturopathy, it often receives a free pass because part of this area includes the use of medicinal plants. However, I think it is about time this free pass was removed for several reasons.

First, while herbal medicines work they have been largely superseded by pharmaceuticals, which allow more precise dosages of pure compounds with known properties. Herbal preparations, on the other hand deliver a mix of compounds (including some which could conceivably have detrimental properties) and in unknown dosages (the amount of active ingredients will vary from crop to crop). Over the past three centuries scientists have learnt how to purify active ingredients from nature and put them to use. Thus, in most cases*, it seems a backward step to go back to the natural source. Willow bark may contain salicylic acid which may help with a headache, however, the acetylsalicylic acid in an aspirin will work just as well with less irritation of the stomach, a better taste and it can be consumed in a precise dose.

The use of naturopathy relies on the “appeal to nature” fallacy, the presumption that everything natural is good, often with the underlying implication that nature was “designed” for our benefit. Of course, an encounter with poison ivy, a taipan or a jellyfish readily disproves this view, yet it is one that seems to persist in certain circles.

Secondly, while naturopaths use herbal medicine, many (if not all) appear to embrace pseudoscientific therapies including homeopathy. As I’ve previously posted the Naturopathic College of New Zealand last year issued a press release supporting the use of homeopathy. Darcy also provided a link to this blog post which outlines the various types of therapies offered by naturopaths in Colorado,USA. Quite an eye opener.

It seems to me that naturopathy has flown under the radar of those challenging pseudoscience for quite a while. Perhaps it is time we reset our “woo” detectors to take a closer look.

21 Responses to “Naturopathy = Outdated Science + Pseudoscience”

  • But, but.. natural plants are better ‘cos of synergy…or something.

    That’s the one I generally hear, but even if true there’s nothing inherently magical about compounds having inter-reactions or additive effects in the body. It would therefore still be beneficial to isolate the individual active components to even out the dose (as you say) or even to optimise the ratios for maximum benefit.

  • Why am I reminded of the bishop that ruined the magic of Christmas for me as a child, by trying to explain the stories of the star and the Magi? Why does “science” have to challenge others’ belief systems?

  • Why does “science” have to challenge others’ belief systems?

    Because without it we are left with nonsense to guide us towards failure. There’s a reason that religious domination in Europe was called the “Dark ages”.

    Science presents us with facts of how the physical world works. Without it we would still think that headache were caused by demons, that the earth was flat as well as the centre of the universe. You say that these explanations “ruin the story” for you, but isn’t that living in ignorance? Personally I like to see the world for what is it, rather than what humans think it should be. It is far more interesting that way.

  • Jean, could you expand on that?
    Are you asking why people allow science to challenge their beliefs or why science must intrude on what people believe?

    Surely it is in the public interest that psuedo-science be exposed?

  • Jean,
    I couldn’t disagree more. Trying to understand the world around us in all it’s glorious complexity only adds to my life, rather than taking anything away.
    Understanding science protects me from being taken in by charlatans and helps me strive to better my self in so many different ways – better health, clearer thinking, even to perform better socially.
    In my early teens I read lots of pseudoscience – UFO’s, parapsychology, etc but it lacked the substance (and the predictiveness and usefulness) of real science.
    Jared makes some excellent points above – some of human kinds darkest times grew out of ignorance and pseudoscience. Science may not be perfect and certainly mistakes have been made but most of these have again been through ignorance and have only been corrected through improved scientific understanding.
    In the words of H G Wells, Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe.

    I’d like to see education win.

  • Jean, I guess my answer to your question (Why does “science” have to challenge others’ belief systems?) is that where those belief systems have the potential or actual ability to harm* others, then science has a responsibility to challenge them. Say someone believes that ‘medicine’ is all wrong & only some complementary modality can cure their cancer. A good example here would be the current controversy surrounding Stanislaw Burzynski. Should we really stand by & see people bilked** of large amounts of money, with absolutely no evidence that his ‘treatments’ do as claimed, & ending up no better off, simply because to act would be to threaten their belief systems? Personally I think we have a moral obligation to act.

    Gaining a scientific perspective on how the world works doesn’t have to destroy one’s appreciation of that world. Richard Dawkins said something along the lines of “understanding how a rainbow is formed in no way diminishes one’s appreciation of its beauty”, & I think he hit the nail right on the head there. The world is surely beautiful enough, wondrous enough, awesome enough, in its own right.

    * That harm may be physical, psychological, or financial (see below).

    ** I use that word advisedly – the Burzynski clinic charges tens of thousands of dollars to people wanting to take part in ‘clinical trials’, which would usually be free to participants. This is because, after 30+ years, he still has no evidence that what he offers actually works. A much vaunted phase 3 trial was supposed to begin in December 2011, but there’s no sign of this happening.

  • Channelling Tim Minchin Alison?

    “Isn’t this enough?
    Just this world?
    Just this beautiful, complex
    Wonderfully unfathomable world?”

    Nicely put. (you and Tim)

  • No, I wasn’t – but nice to know I’m in good company! (I don’t actually follow Tim a lot but enjoy his work via links friends occasionally send me.)

  • OK, fair enough. It was a genuine question. I always get the feeling that it’s a battle between the scientists and the “others”. I was raised “believing” in science and a total atheist, but, like the rainbow, Alison, I guess I still appreciate the stories and the music of the church. And I had a good experience with a naturopath 30 years ago, who suggested a diet for my young son and completely changed his health, then my mother’s and then mine, which rather changed my attitude. It was, of course, a relative intolerance to milk and though it was done with the dangling of gold chains and such gobbledegook, I took the advice and did my own “experiments”, which led to my son’s constant infections disappearing and subsequently determined the sort of food I eat today.

    Interesting to see the responses: I guess I was asking why science needed to “intrude on what people believe”, Darcy. Changing people’s attitudes seems to require you to understand those beliefs and yes, respect them. I don’t think you can do that by putting them down. Maybe I was just feeling old at the time…

  • Jean,
    Thanks for your thoughts. Wouldn’t it have been so much easier for the naturopath to have given the dietary advice without the goobledegook?
    Dietary advice seems to me to be quite a reasonable offering of naturopaths, it’s the various other stuff that I think many of us find frustrating.
    With those who are already strong believers of various types of pseudoscience there is often not much you can say to shake their beliefs. What I think is more important is to offer a rational and scientific perspective to those who who have not yet been swayed by pseudoscience.

  • Hi again Jean :-) Like you, I enjoy quite a bit of the music of the church (in fact, I used to sing in the church choir when I was a fair bit younger; just used to tune out the sermons!), but the stories – not so much.

    On the belief thing – I guess the rock I founder on is where someone’s belief in an unproven (or perhaps worse, a discredited system) has the real potential to do them or others harm. There was a relatively recent case over the ditch where a homeopath basically ignored his daughter’s worsening condition & continued to ‘treat’ her eczema his way. The child died. No doubt his beliefs were strong (because I can’t think how else he could justify his actions) but no way do I respect them. I suppose it could be argued that as an adult, he could make his own decisions regarding health issues, but his child didn’t have that option.

  • In case there is any doubt, I am not a believer – in God or naturopathy or creationism or even science. I am merely thinking about ways in which scientists can communicate with a wide range of believers, in a meaningful way. Of course the gobbledegook was unnecessary – for me. I was highly embarrassed if I remember rightly, but I followed instructions “in good faith”. Sure people who believe these things sometimes run into trouble, but if the death rate was significant the practice would surely be outlawed (wouldn’t it? – I would hope so). The point I am trying to make (and which Michael makes) is that telling people naturopathy or homeopathy is a waste of their money does nothing to make them change their attitudes and practice – Alison’s example shows this. Conversations like this remind me that empirical science is very young compared with the various religions and if anything – in Muslim countries and the US – religion seems to make more people happy than science. So I don’t regard it as a battle. In contrast, the people I talk with, whether lawyers or economists or farmers or hairdressers, are remarkably aware of the situation the planet is in, but many find faith more reassuring than science, when it comes to how they live their lives. We are all (and there is far too many of us…) helpless animals in the end, trying to survive as well as we can.

    Happy Waitangi Day!

  • Jean,
    thanks for your post. I don’t doubt that you are not a believer, you made the clear in an earlier post – but one can still be a believer and visit here – sciblogs is a fairly open community interested in open, honest and informed discussion about things related to science.
    Your observation that many people find faith more reassuring than science is probably an accurate one, but one I find unnerving, as it allows people to turn their backs on important issues.
    For me, sciblogs is all about open conversation and education – I don’t want to twist people’s arms to “listen to science”. Instead I hope that through education people will think more about science and some of the important issues. For example, with 94% of the NZ population not knowing that the majority of homeopathic remedies contain nothing but water. This is not right – people should know this so they can make a more informed decision about the use of such “therapies”. They need to know that using such therapies to prevent malaria for example puts their lives at risk.
    Likewise people deserve to know that detox footbath therapies have no scientific grounding and the change in water colour is due to simple electrode chemistry.
    It is all about providing as many people with factual information and letting them make informed decisons.

    I’ll put the soapbox away now :-)

  • Thanks for clarifying Jean,

    The trouble is that Naturopathy seems to be more of a catch-all of pseudo-science and various other philosophies. Not all of them compatible with each other. By chance they may also include scientifically supportable treatments, but it’s not because of a commitment to evidence.

    I do think science should challenge people, people should be challenged to think about the things they believe. As Alison said, there are practices out there that are harmful but are accepted exactly because they are not challenged in the public square.

    You also bring up another common misunderstanding, that the public trust the government or the medical establishment to keep them safe from unproven treatments. With mainstream/conventional medicine this should indeed be the case (and why a large investment is made in clinical trails for safety and efficacy) but Naturopaths and homeopaths and many other “alternative” practitioners are not bound by the normal rules of medicine. They do not have to show safety nor efficacy. Some vague claims about “supporting” function are enough. In fact whenever attempts are made to hold them to a higher standard you hear the rallying cry of “Health Freedom”. Freedom is all well and good but to mean anything it must be informed.

    The public don’t know this and this leads to the situation Michael described where most NZers don’t know that homeopathy is diluted beyond any hope that there is an active ingredient left.

    To echo Michael’s last point, we must try to provide the facts to aid people in making the most reasonable decisions. If sometimes our frustration with how alternative medicine is portrayed, or conventional medicine is distorted leads us into ridicule, well we are only human.

  • Meh – following down Jean’s path to the fairy grotto at the end we pass deeper into the land of moral equivelency (how dare you question my belief system – its as valid as yours!).

    Here there be dragons.

    Dragons are best slain – no good comes from people attempting to turn them into pets, or ignoring the fact that they scortch the curtains and eat children.

  • Is the South Pacific College of Natural Medicine any better than the Naturopathic College of New Zealand? I was curious to see if they were teaching the same rubbishy pseudoscience, but it doesn’t look anywhere near as bad as NCNZ – correct me if I’m wrong:

    I know the assumption that things that are “natural” are better is just wrong and stupid. But I would rather have naturopaths trained to not learn iridology, reflexology and homeopathy. Is that in your view a step in the right direction? Assuming the end goal would be for people to not have a preference for “natural” medicine.

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