Paul Offit. Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. Fourth Estate, 2013.
Dr Offit’s book covers much the same ground as those reviewed HERE. He is no more impressed with much of alternative medicine than any of the other authors, and his account of the promotion of alternative medicine is just as alarming as in those. He examines a variety of alternative cures, but devotes special attention to the various quack cancer cures, the anti-vaccine movement the promotion of a variety of mainly diet/supplement based therapies for autism. 🔻
He explores the role of celebrities in the promotion of many of these nostrums, and the unspoken question is how many of them, especially those close to their sell by date, use this to make money and keep themselves in the public eye. It is not much of a surprise to see that Oprah Winfrey and her ilk have been active in promoting a number of quack causes, one wonders if there is any barmy notion that Ms Winfrey has not promoted at some time or another?#
This is a really sad litany, the promotion of false hope to the desperate parents of dying children, the promotion of “natural” cures that cause more harm than help, the social danger caused by the anti vaccine movement etc.
It isn’t just celebrities that get in other the act, politicians jump on the bandwagon. This seems to be a problem particularly in the United States, where politicians, in the absence of strong party discipline, are just up for sale to the highest bidder. Of course we do have the late and not especially lamented Tony and Cherie Blair and their strange friends, and above all Prince Charles who doesn’t just promote the stuff but sells his own brand Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture. For calling Charlie a snake oil salesman, one of the authors referred to in the link above, Dr Edward Ernst, was forced to take early retirement. I’m retired already and thus can say what I like.
Some of the people in this business were just that, snake oil salesman from the start, but as Offit points out many were properly qualified doctors, or front ranking figures in other fields such as the late Linus Pauling. It may well be that the self confidence going well past bordering on arrogance allows these people to make exceptional discoveries but also to make disastrous errors of judgement, compounded by lack of any ability to accept that they are wrong.
Perhaps this also applies to a number of other people that Offit names and shames. Maybe to be charitable they are self-deluded, though the more cynical may point out their curious ability to delude themselves into being very wealthy indeed. It is interesting to note that one of those featured in this book can be found as a cheerleader on the promotional blurb of just about any book spouting new nonsense of any description.
Of course Offit accepts that some 'alternative medicines' work, there are herbs, which are well, er, just raw drugs, and the placebo effect can be very powerful. The conclusion should be that there is no problem with non-invasive therapies carried out in parallel to scientifically demonstrated treatments, but the promotion of alternatives to real treatments, and the ingestion of untested stuff is very problematical indeed. – Peter Rogerson.