The Dangerous Untruths* used by "Alternative" Medicine – part 1

By Michael Edmonds 17/02/2013 4

After reading the materials produced by purveyors of, and believers in, “alternative” medicine you start to recognise common untrue statements which are repeated again and again, until they are accepted by believers as undeniable truths. Such beliefs are reinforced when alternative communities close themselves off from opposing views online by banning those who challenge these views from various fora or by running blogs where conflicting comments are blocked.

The two common untruths that I am going to address here are 1) That conventional medicine doesn’t know how drugs works and; 2) That scientists who challenge “alternative” medicine are somehow dupes for the pharmaceutical industry.

Untruth 1 – “But we don’t know how conventional drugs work either”

Those who push “alternative” treatments are unable to explain how they might “work” (beyond of course, stringing together random sciency sounding terms such as quantum entanglement or molecular memory). Consequently it would be really convenient for them if they could say the same thing about conventional medicine. And many “natural” and “alternative medicine supporters will make statements such as “well, we don’t know how conventional medicine works either.” And they are WRONG.

Anyone who has studied medicinal chemistry will know that, for most drugs, how they work is very clearly understood. Large textbooks are written on the subject. Admittedly, there are a tiny percentage of drugs (particularly new ones) where the mechanism is not always clear. But these are in the minority. Of the 39 new drug products approved by the FDA in 2012, only ONE has an unknown mechanism of action, something which will likely change as it undergoes further study.

And as well as large textbooks there are other more populist books which illustrate the ways drugs work.


Untruth 2 – “Scientists are the dupes/shills of the pharmaceutical industry”

This is probably the comment which most offends me. When debating with someone who believes in “alternative” medicine this typically comes towards the end when you have successfully countered their other arguments, which probably gives a good indication of the legitimacy of this comment. It is a personal attack, and one I take personally.

I chose to study science because I believed it was the best way to contribute to the improvement of the world around us and because it allows use to better understand the world around us. Many other scientists share these reasons for choosing a career in science, something I have previously written about.

The very suggestion that scientists would support poor data/poor science coming out of pharmaceutical or other companies shows a complete misunderstanding of how most scientists think.** We are interested in understanding how the world around us works – to accept a flawed explanation of this world is anathema to science.

To accuse scientists of making or accepting flawed claims is akin to accusing firefighters of lighting fires rather than putting them out. It makes no sense.

Furthermore, when people talk about the supposed power of Big Pharma, they neglect to consider the billions of dollars earned by those selling alternative medicines. I mean think about it – a small bottle of a homeopathic remedy foften costs more than 10 dollars. 10 dollars for a bottle of water, what’s the mark up on that then? Given that most “alternative” remedy manufacturers do not have to pay for research like pharmaceutical companies, its money for jam.


These are just two of the common and dangerous untruths* used by alternative medicine. When I get time I will add to this list, although readers are welcome to suggest other dangerous untruths they have come across.

*I’ve used the term “untruths” because I believe that many supporters of “alternative” medicine simply do not understand that their beliefs are irrational. For others, I suspect the word “lie” would be more appropriate.

** Granted there will always be a few scientists who buckle under the temptations of either funding or fame to pervert science, however, sooner or later they will get caught out by one or more of the majority of honest scientists.

4 Responses to “The Dangerous Untruths* used by "Alternative" Medicine – part 1”

  • I get the impression that many supporters of “alternative” treatments think that scientists are not able to find out the mechanism of how their products work.

    They don’t seem to understand that there’s no mechanism to be worked out when their product doesn’t actually work.

  • As for the idea that the methods used by conventional science are desgned to “fail” non-drug treatment, I think this recent paper is a very good example of the opposite happening:
    Efficacy and safety of high-dose vitamin C on complex regional pain syndrome in extremity trauma and surgery–systematic review and meta-analysis.

    A risk reduction of 0.22, consistent across the four trials reviewed, for a minimum risk intervention is an impressive finding.
    As for the argument that development and awareness of non-patentable treatments is ignored at a cost to patients, well we’ll just have to keep an eye on this one, won’t we?

  • Can I add that there is a major misconception of how “safe” these products are? As a practicing pharmacist the most common thing you hear supporters of CAM saying is “At least this is safe, just look at how many people die each year from prescription medicines…etc”

    I usually point out to them that after CAM treatment failed or when things gone out of hand, the patient gets shoved to the public hospital as the last resort, and when the hospital fails to reverse the harm then somehow they are to blame.

    The logic goes like this.

    Magic water will heal him
    He turns black because of toxin build up, more magic water needed
    (by this point most sensible people would have called ambulance)
    Dr give drugs to reverse toxicity
    Patient failed to respond
    Patient died
    Conclusion: Since the last thing he took was a modern medicine, this proves that they causes death and harm. Should have stayed using the safe magic water.

    Maybe all these firm believers of CAM can opt out of public funded health services. Let them use all their magic to treat and heal “the real cause” of disease. Then let’s compare how “safe” these treatments really are.

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