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Fifteen advances in medicine. What has SCAM done?

June 21, 2012

The British Medical Journal was first published in 1840. A few years ago the magazine conducted a reader poll to find the fifteen most important advances, discoveries or breakthroughs in medicine since then. Here is the list:

  • Anaesthesia
  • Antibiotics
  • Chlorpromazine
  • Computers
  • Discovery of DNA structure
  • Evidence Based Medicine
  • Germ Theory
  • Imaging
  • Immunology
  • Oral Rehydration Therapy
  • The Pill
  • Risks of Smoking
  • Sanitation
  • Tissue Culture
  • Vaccines

Alternative medicine supporters will be especially horrified at the list, because not only does it contradict much of quackery by including germ theory and antibiotics, admit to the reality of mental illness by including the first anti-psychotic drug, highlight the value of evidence and recognise the value of vaccines, but one of altmed's most demonised villains (Louis Pasteur) was associated with two of the things in the list.

I invite representatives of alternative medicine to provide their own list of the fifteen greatest discoveries in Supplementary, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (or SCAM, for short). Here are my suggestions, in no particular order:

  • The freedom to "cure" cancer in Tijuana, out of the reach of US health authorities (see a typical clinic here).
  • EDTA chelation, as a method of extracting money from the parents of autistic children.
  • Expert witness fees.
  • The opportunity to be paid to find what you want to find when doing research. (cf Dr Andrew Wakefield)
  • The power of the word "natural" to imply "safe" and "healthy".
  • The axiom of organic chemistry that the dangers of an "ethyl-" compound can be assumed to be the same as for a "methyl-" compound, because the names rhyme. (cf Dr Boyd Haley)
  • The profitability of selling water and calling it "homeopathic remedy".
  • The power of religion to deflect criticism, engender fear and provide credibility.
  • The gullibility of the general public, coming from ignorance of science.
  • The variability of conditions like MS, where natural fluctuations in symptoms and regression to the mean can look like "cures".
  • The use of trade practices and intellectual property laws to stifle criticism (see examples here and here).
  • The fact that the causes of SIDS and autism are as yet unknown, allowing vaccines to be blamed.
  • The public's fear of being labelled as mentally ill, thus providing a fertile field for the treatment of psychosomatic illnesses such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and Morgellons Syndrome.
  • The public's fear of mental illness itself, allowing its existence to be denied and its signs to be blamed on inadequate nutrition, poor parenting or some other external cause.
  • The reluctance of politicians, health bureaucrats, insurance executives and doctors to stand up and loudly declare "That's bullshit!".

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