There is no such thing as “alternative medicine”

There is no such thing as “alternative medicine” – any more than there is “alternative mathematics”.

Yes, there are different ways to practise medicine, just as there are different ways of calculating the value of pi – but the fundamental remains: something is either medically valid or it is not. If it is not – and that means if it cannot prove its efficacy – then it is not any sort of medicine.

I am move to write this by two things – firstly what appears to be a major outbreak of measles in the United States that has been brought about not by a failure of medicine but by a cold and deliberate attempt to undermine medicine, and secondly by the current vogue in the UK of otherwise rational people saying they would support the Green Party – a party dedicated, amongst other things to the promotion of anti-science in medicine.

The US measles outbreak is not just because of the “irresponsible and dishonest” work of Andrew Wakefield – a man who manipulated research findings in a way that stood to bring substantial financial benefits to lots of people he was associated with. Wakefield has been thoroughly discredited by anyone with the remotest concern for scientific credibility.

What has fuelled the outbreak is the belief by some – too many – that somehow they know better than science that their “alternative” medicine is better. In fact they are putting the lives of their children at risk through their refusal to accept medicine. If you want a contemporary example of “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” then this, surely, is it.

As for the Green Party – which were reported to be as high as 11% in one opinion poll last week and which have also won the right to appear in leaders’ debates on UK television – at least they are no longer explicitly describing homoeopathy (also known as “water”) as “natural medicine”) and they have also seemingly distanced themselves from past demands that scientific research only follow government-approved routes (Lysenko-ism anybody?). But they still state this on their policy website:

Current theory and practice place too much emphasis on interventions at the biochemical and individual levels, too little on the social and ecological.

Of course, perhaps that is just a meaningless left-over from their past days as new age hippies – but it has a distinct anti-science tone to my ears, especially as it is followed up with the statement that their aim is to:

…develop a new public health consciousness, which, through individual and collective action, will challenge vested interests and promote the personal, social and political changes needed to achieve improved states of health.

Wouldn’t actually some new “biochemical interventions” also be a good idea? I certainly think so, but if health is all about lifestyle you might feel otherwise.

Then there is this “aim”:

To develop health services which place as much emphasis on illness prevention, health promotion and the development of individual and community self-reliance as on the treatment and cure of disease. Such services will of necessity be empowering, participatory and democratic and their development will be guided by users’ own perceptions of their health needs.

By now I am beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable – to me the above statement is seriously anti-scientific in tone and intent: truth, after all, is not democratic.

And, then, under policies we have this:

We will work to reduce the number of interventions in childbirth, and change the culture of the NHS so that birth is treated as a normal and non-medical event, in which mothers are empowered and able to be in control.

(Shades here of the Soviet approach – and the claim that pain was all in the mind of the mother – as described in Red Plenty. Most mothers I know were very glad of medical help at birth, especially in the form of pain relief. Is the Green Party’s policy really to “change the culture” of the NHS to limit access to that?)

And this…

The safety and regulation of medicines will be controled by a single agency. This agency will ensure that medicines meet minimum safety standards, provide clear labelling of both ingredients and side-effects. The agency will cover existing synthetic medicines as well as those considered as natural or alternative medicines.

Considered by whom to be “alternative” medicines? It’s not a purely rhetorical question as the Green’s current sole MP, Caroline Lucas, has a disappointing record as an advocate of “alternative” medicine campaigns funded by commercial interests in this field.