Two items appear below:
- Qakatak by John Foley, versus
- The Case for Alternative Medicine by Harry Edwards
The Australian Skeptics' Guide to
(Investigator 70,2001 January)
Qakatak is dedicated to getting some control over "alternative"
medicine and educating the public over the difference between medicine
Part of that strategy is to force the labeling and advertising of all
products or procedures that infer therapeutic claims to declare whether
or not they can repeatedly demonstrate efficacy in controlled,
double-blind scientific tests. It is not the role of Australian
skeptics to tell the public what they can and can't do, but merely to
supply accurate information so the buying public can make individual,
The history of Europe for much of the last 2000 years has been
dominated by the Church. People who propose alternatives to the
teachings of the Church were burned as heretics. Copernicus, Galileo,
Bruno and other changed the things so that scientists such as Newton
could hypothesise. Medicine began to try new things and search in new
directions. Arsenic became a cure-all and blood letting was a common
remedy with death from septicemia a common result.
Samuel Hahnemann observed that many of the people who came in contact
with such medicine either got worse, or died. He came up with two
hypotheses. One was that "like cures like" and the other was that the
more dilute the solution, the more powerful the effect. He called his
system homeopathy. By diluting the original substance down trillions of
times, his patients were taking water and so suffered no ill effects.
Smallpox had been a major killer for centuries. All that could be done
was to take the pus someone with a mild case of smallpox and use it to
vaccinate children, hoping that they would also get a mild case. Most
of those children got severe smallpox and apart from the two per cent
who died, many of the rest were badly disfigured with pockmarks.
Clearly, a better method was needed.
Around the same time as Hahnemann was developing homeopathy, folk tales
claimed that milkmaids who had suffered cowpox did not get smallpox.
Physician Edward Jenner's hypotheses was that if he injected people
with pus from a cowpox sore, he could prevent them getting smallpox. In
1796, he injected cowpox pus into 8-year-old James Phipps who developed
cowpox. Several weeks later, Jenner injected smallpox pus into him, but
it had no effect. The experiment was duplicated on many others and the
hypothesis was proven. Smallpox had been one of the greatest scourges
of mankind for thousands of years, but with the use of science, in just
181 years it was totally eradicated. In a few years time, the defeat of
polio will have been even quicker.
What is the difference between conmen and alternative medicine
practitioners? Conmen set up some deception or scam then gain people's
confidence. People willingly part with their money and are said to have
Alternative medicine practitioners make claims of medical knowledge and
ways of treating and preventing ailments that cannot be backed up by
science. They call themselves health professionals to gain people's
confidence who then willingly hand over their money.
When asked for scientific testing, they nearly always refuse. On the
few occasions that they have been tested, their claims are shown to be
false. When a new medical hypothesis is proposed, it remains a
hypothesis until proven by the scientific method. If it works, then it
is adopted by medicine. If it doesn't then it is either discarded as
useless or called alternative medicine.
It has often been said that only a small percentage of medical
procedures have been properly tested. A double blind randomized trial
on immunization would require a large group of people, say 1000, to be
immunized against a disease. Another 1000 people would receive a
harmless substance as a placebo and the third 1000, the control group,
would receive nothing. All 3000 people would then be subjected to the
disease in question and the results would be recorded. Obviously, many
people would die, so it would never be done. Chemotherapy would be the
same and so would removal of an appendix.
Therefore, it is true that most medical procedures have not been
properly tested, but if my sister hadn't had her appendix removed when
she was a child, she would have died. My sister-in-law had chemotherapy
after a mastectomy. Neither of those procedures has been subjected to a
double blind, randomised trial for the reasons given above. However,
without both procedures, she would be dead.
There is statistical evidence that surgery, chemotherapy and
mouth-to-mouth resuscitation work. That makes it medicine according to
What will keep us all happy? It can cost tens of thousands of dollars
to test some products and techniques, and the profits aren't
necessarily at the end of the rainbow, so they may not be presented for
testing nor even come into the market, denying consumers any benefit
because there is not enough profit for sponsors. It can also take years
to do such tests. While the bureaucrats argue, the suffering consumers
could be using the products or techniques.
I turn to my Macquarie dictionary, which has seven definitions for medicine.
The first is Medicine — any substance or substances used in treating disease; a medicament; a remedy.
Obviously, Band-Aids have no medical effect, but we will never stop
parents putting Band-Aids on children to cure them of all sorts of
ailments form bumps on the head to tummy aches. If the vendors of
products such as Echinacea and Evening Primrose Oil make therapeutic
claims but cannot prove efficacy, let all such products be labeled
pseudo-medicine. If it treats disease, it is medicine. Not orthodox,
mainstream or anything else. Medicine, just as the dictionary says.
If it claims to treat disease but can't demonstrate that claim, then it
is pseudo-medicine. But it is not alternative, complementary, holistic
or anything else. It is just pseudo-medicine and if it were labeled so,
the consumers could make informed choices.
On the label of products making therapeutic claims, you will usually
find either Aust R or Aust L followed by a number in very small print.
Aust R means that the product has been independently tested and found
to be efficacious, ie, it works. Aust L means no testing has been done,
and the people selling the product can tell any lies they want, take
your money, and nobody will stop them. You will not always find an Aust
L number because nobody polices the law and the Therapeutic Goods
Administration has never prosecuted anyone for not labeling their goods
There are good and bad bus drivers, plumbers and medical practitioners.
Australian Skeptics does not concern itself with quality control,
leaving that to organizations such as Australian Consumers'
Association. Quacks are pretenders to medical knowledge. If medical
practitioners abandon science and make pseudo-scientific claims, they
become quacks and Qakatak — Australian Skeptics — will get involved.
When people travel by plane, they don't have to concern themselves with
whether or not the captain can fly. When they go to the top of a
multi-storey building, they can take it on faith that the builders did
a proper job. When people get sick, why is it that they are expected to
sift the wheat from the chaff on who has and has not been trained in
The Case for Alternative Medicine
(From: Investigator No. 73 2000 July)
The editor has drawn attention to the fact that true believers in
religion, the supernatural and the paranormal are backward in coming
forward. As a consequence, statements are made, opinions aired, views
expressed and claims made, most of which go unchallenged. Take for
example John Foley's article on alternative medicine, Qakatak,
in issue #70. John left himself wide open and any self-respecting
alternative practitioner would have commented along the following lines.
John is strong on rhetoric, his case relying on generalities. His
argument lacks any kind of supporting evidence and leaves much to be
desired if he wishes to persuade the consumer that alternative medicine
should be shunned. If the article is supposed to be informative then I
for one am left completely in the dark.
We are told by the writer that Australian Skeptics is "dedicated to
getting some 'control' over 'alternative' medicine" and will provide
accurate information to enable the buying public to make informed
decisions. 'Control' means the power to direct or to regulate. Why do
the Australian Skeptics presume they should be the ultimate arbiter of
what health services are suitable for your particular needs? Because of
the opinion of a biased GP on the committee? Because of the advice of
other committee members no more qualified than those they seek to
To my knowledge, the only attempt to 'educate' the consumer was my recent book Alternative, Complementary, Holistic and Spiritual Healing,
in which I highlight the dangers of relying on some, but not all, types
of alternative health practices. Despite the book receiving excellent
reviews in medical journals Australian Skeptics withdrew the book from
sale thus cutting a primary conduit to the consumer.
Addressing the main points raised by John. He implies that there is no
difference between conmen and alternative medical practitioners. I
doubt very much that anyone who has spent five years in college
studying homoeopathy, naturopathy or chiropractic would take kindly to
that label, particularly as some of them are also science-based medical
The popularity of alternative healing can be gauged by a perusal of the
Sydney telephone directory's Yellow Pages. There are 9 columns listing
Alternative Health Services and 156 columns of those practitioners
specialising in services such as chiropractic, naturopathy and
homoeopathy. Are they are all conmen?
Over $600,000,000 is spent on these services each year. Isn't this an
indication that the services are patronised by those who are satisfied
with them? Or does it indicate that half the population in Australia is
composed of uninformed ignoramuses who should consult Australian
Skeptics before making a health decision.
John further states that alternative practitioners claim to be medical
practitioners. This of course is not true unless they also have an
orthodox medical qualification. To do otherwise would invite serious
In any case, having a medical qualification doesn't necessarily confer
sainthood nor infallibility. Currently there are 543 law suits for
medical negligence facing the NSW Public Health System and more than 3%
of doctors in NSW are facing legal action for negligence. In 1999, the
United States Institute of Medicine found that drugs and medical
devices had led to the deaths of 98,000 Americans each year as well as
countless non-fatal accidents.
From the service point of view too there is much to be desired. In New
South Wales there are over 55,000 people waiting for operations.
A major point, and the only one with any validity raised by John, is
the question of testing products and therapies for their efficacy. He
argues, quite correctly, that research is often prohibitively expensive
and few of the alternative methods have been scientifically tested. In
his opinion therefore, they remain hypotheses rather than proven by
scientific method. He then admits that only a small percentage of
orthodox medical procedures have also been properly tested, quoting
immunisation, chemotherapy and appendectomy as examples. But, he adds —
Now let's test John's criteria by looking at one of the principal
alternatives — Traditional Chinese herbal medicine (TCM). Prior to the
development of the scientific methods of clinical trials and
double-blind tests, the beneficial or deleterious effects of herb
ingestion could only be discovered by trial and error and by observing
the effects on birds and animals. The cost in human life must have been
enormous before it was finally determined what was and what was not
safe to ingest.
While there is no empirical evidence available prior to the invention
of written languages, evidence has come down to us in the form of clay
tablets written in cuneiform from Sumerian times, in Egyptian papyri
and Chinese materia medica. The Chinese Shen Nun Ben Tsao
published in 659 AD, listed more than 300 medicines. A similar
compilation is attributed to India whose pharmacopoeia lists 2000
plants which form the basis of ayurvedic medicine. Many of the herbal
extracts have been adopted or synthesised and in many cases are
pharmaceutical products used in one form or another by the orthodox
medical profession. These medicines therefore meet John's criteria.
They have been tested for hundreds — in some instances thousands of
years on control groups of millions — vastly larger than those
available for any scientific project. The demand and their longevity is
an indication that they have proven their efficaciousness and worth.
Many are now recommended and prescribed by orthodox medical
practitioners embracing alternative therapies as well as science-based
medicine in their practices. What right then has an organisation such
as the Australian Skeptics to decide that time and money should now be
wasted on proving what has already been proven?
Regarding John's final point — the claims made by promoters of
therapeutic goods and the labeling of those items. Anyone making false
claims is liable to prosecution under the Therapeutic Goods Act, and if
they are not prosecuted it is the fault of those charged with
implementing the legislation. If the Australian Skeptics have an axe to
grind then it is to the legislators they should turn.
For some years now complementary health sciences have been finding
their way into university curricula and research charters. Lismore's
Southern Cross University has a degree-level course in naturopathy. The
University of Western Australia a Bachelor of Applied Sciences
(Osteopathy) and the University of Western Sydney, Macarthur, a
Bachelor of Applied Sciences (Chinese Medicine). In July 1997, the
University of Sydney opened Australia's first Herbal Medicines Research
and Education Centre (HMREC) a branch of the Department of Pharmacy. It
offers education on the safety, quality and efficacy of herbal and
complementary medicines. Post-graduate degrees, certificates, diplomas
and masters are now provided.
It would seem that the medical establishment's antipathy towards many
"alternative" health therapies is mellowing. Many respectable
institutions are now prepared to give accreditation to what many
medicos formally considered to be "dubious practices."
Perhaps John Foley and the Australian Skeptics are a little too sceptical.