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One of the places where pseudoscience is rife is in alternative medicine. (The choice of the word "rife" was fortuitous. One of the great names in quackery was Royal Raymond Rife.) One of the principles of alternative medicine seems to be a rejection of science, although practitioners like to claim scientific credibility for their treatments. Alternative supporters will often talk about the research done in the alternative field (research which always seems to be suppressed by the orthodoxy), but whenever I look at what passes for research I am reminded of Gulliver's visit to the Grand Academy of Lagado, where researchers were working on problems like softening marble so that it could be used as a pillow, extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, recovering the original food from excrement, and investigating the malleability of fire.
I recently gave a talk about pseudomedicine to the Australian Skeptics, and one of the examples of dangerous quackery I featured was a book called "The Cure for All Diseases" by Hulda Clark, who bills herself as a "researcher" in alternative medicine. She has written other books called "The Cure for All Cancers", "The Cure for All Advanced Cancers" and "The Cure for HIV/AIDS"; she used to run a lucrative cancer clinic in Tijuana until it was closed by the Mexican authorities (her PR people claim that it is still open), and she does brisk sales of electronic zapping devices and herbal preparations through several web sites. "The Cure for All Diseases" is currently ranked at position 3,198 in sales at Amazon.com. This is big business.
The procedure consists of diagnosis by a machine called a "syncrometer", which is nothing more than a simple galvanometer. The sound emitted indicates what is wrong, and this is then fixed by a combination of some herbs and "zapping" with a device that provides a small electric current. The syncrometer is then used again, and it indicates a cure by making a different noise. The scientific content of all this is zero. One result of Clark's "research" is the suggestion that by using her treatment methods it is possible for people with Type 1 diabetes to virtually eliminate the need for insulin. In these people the Islets of Langerhans in the pancreas, which produce insulin, are destroyed. The only treatment available for this condition has been frequent insulin injections, although in rare cases a transplant of a pancreas and kidney have effected a cure. (it's only a partial cure, because the patient exchanges hourly insulin injections for daily anti-rejection tablets.) Clark's fantasy includes the preposterous statement that 50% of the islets can regenerate. This is simply nonsense - once the islets have been replaced by scar tissue, there is no possibility of recovery.
The day after my presentation was the 50th anniversary of the publication of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. This was a case of real scientists making a real discovery which transformed what we knew about how the body worked and opened the way for a revolution in the understanding of diseases and their prevention and treatment. It would be hard to imagine a better deserved Nobel Prize.
These two seemingly unrelated matters were brought together for me a couple of days later, when I went for a tour through The Millennium Institute at Westmead Hospital. In the foyer is a map of the human genome, and the first laboratory we visited contained machines for sequencing genes. These machines are used by researchers throughout the institute in their work on cancer, viruses and other research areas. The breadth of what has become possible in just fifty years in real medicine highlights the vacuousness of what passes for research in pseudomedicine, where nothing new or useful has been found for centuries and where science is just a dirty word.
The next event really highlighted the difference between medicine and the alternative. We were addressed by a scientist working on techniques to transplant just the islets into patients with diabeties, rather than the complete pancreas. So far, only four successful transplants have been performed, two at Westmead and two by their collaborators in the USA. (The transplant team at Westmead have done about 140 full-pancreas transplants.) The new method requires much less dramatic surgery, has shorter recovery time, requires less anti-rejection medication for the life of the patient, and holds out the possibility of a single donor pancreas being able to be used for multiple recipients. It's early days yet, but this has the potential to transform the lives of many people whose only choice up to now has been between many injections each day and death. There could be no starker contrast between medicine and quackery than comparing these scientists, with their cautious optimism and rigorous research, with charlatans who unashamedly lie about having all the answers right now.
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the April 2003 edition of Australasian Science
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