Alternative health is pseudoscience

The current popularity of “alternative” health is a sad testament to the pervasive appeal of pseudoscience among Americans. As a general matter, “alternative” health is the belief that simple measures (nutritional supplements, herbs, laying on of hands) are effective in preventing and treating serious illness. “Alternative” health promotes the happy fantasy that we have more control over our health than we actually do.

Like most claims of pseudoscience, “alternative” health rests on the twin pillars of lack of knowledge and magical thinking. Lack of knowledge is easy to explain. If you don’t have a fund of basic scientific knowledge, if you don’t understand the scientific method, and if you don’t understand statistics, which is the language of science, you are not going to have a real understanding of health. Most “alternative” health advocates are woefully undereducated about human physiology, have little basic knowledge of science and no knowledge of statistics.

“Alternative” health advocacy depends in large part on a few celebrity “scholars” who filter and interpret all information about health, scientific papers and statistical analysis. The average consumer of supplements and alternative treatments has not read a single medical textbook, a single book of statistics or a single scientific paper. Interestingly, they don’t even think it is necessary. Indeed, the average consumer who claims to have done “research” into alternative health has only “researched” the opinions of other advocates.

If lack of knowledge were the only problem, it would be easy to solve. A little more education would go a long way. Learning the truth about “alternative” health, the fact that virtually none of it has been tested for efficacy or safety, should put a serious dent in the sale of supplements, herbs, and “alternative” remedies. However, the belief in “alternative” health reflects the appeal of pseudoscience itself.

Barry Beyerstein, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, wrote extensively on this topic. His paper, Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience, is one of the best expositions of the issue that I have read. As Beyerstein explains:

The prestige and influence of science in this century is so great that very few fields outside of religion and the arts wish to be seen as overtly unscientific. As a result, many endeavors that lack the essential characteristics of a science have begun to masquerade as one in order to enhance their economic, social and political status. While these pseudosciences are at pains to resemble genuine sciences on the surface, closer examination of the contents, methods and attitudes reveals them to be mere parodies. The roots of most pseudosciences are traceable to ancient magical beliefs, but their devotees tyically play this down as they adopt the outward appearance of scientific rigor. Analysis of the perspectives and practices of these scientific poseurs is likely to expose a mystical worldview that has merely been restated in scientific-sounding jargon.

How does it work in practice?

Pseudoscientists use a number of rhetorical ploys to advance their cause. These sales gambits are well-known to social psychologists who specialize in persuasion techniques…

Bogus science prospers in the marketplace by selling false hope … Wild claims … are likely to surface wherever proven techniques offer no quick and easy route to a highly desirable end.

Most claims of “alternative” medicine fit into this category. Nutritional claims are paradigmatic. Wouldn’t it be nice if preventing, treating and curing serious illness involved nothing more arduous or uncomfortable than changing what you eat. Sound to good to be true? That’s because it is.

According to Carl Sagan:

Pseudoscience is easier to contrive than science because distracting confrontations with reality … are more readily avoided. The standards of argument, what passes for evidence, are much more relaxed. In part for these same reasons, it is much easier to present pseudoscience to the general public than science. But this isn’t enough to explain its popularity…

Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for… In some of its manifestations, it offers satisfaction of spiritual hungers, cures for disease, promises that death is not the end. It reassures us of our cosmic centrality and importance. It vouchsafes that we are hooked up with, tied to, the Universe…

At the heart of some pseudoscience … is the idea that wishing makes it so. How satisfying it would be, as in folklore and children’s stories, to fulfill our heart’s desire just by wishing. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes…

“Alternative” health, like all pseudoscience, depends on a lack of basic knowledge of science and a desperate wish that difficult problems can be solved with simple solutions. Lack of knowledge, superstition and desperation have created a financial bonanza for purveyors and advocates of “alternative” health.