Friday, May 28, 2004

So Much for the Age of Reason

It's articles like this one that make me sceptical whenever I hear someone say we are in a new, glorious age of heightened rationality, as opposed to the dark old superstitioous days of yore. That may be true for a small fraction of the population, but for the rest, it absolutely is not.

Drawing from a long list of "alternative" medical therapies as diverse as the Atkins diet, acupuncture, homeopathy and prayer, federal health researchers reported Thursday that nearly two out of three Americans were using unconventional approaches to mend their bodies or maintain their health.

When prayer is dropped from the list, the federally funded survey found that 36 percent of Americans over the age of 18 used so-called complementary and alternative medicine.


A snapshot of American health care choices in 2002, the survey concluded that 8 percent of the nation's adults visited chiropractors; 5 percent practiced yoga for health; 1.1 percent had acupuncture; and 1.7 percent employed homeopathy.

The wildly popular Atkins diet, one of several listed as therapies in the survey, was tried by only 1.7 percent of those surveyed -- but the study was conducted in 2002, just as the national craze for high-protein, low- carbohydrate foods was igniting.


Skeptics of alternative medicine nevertheless questioned the scientific value of the survey. "I can't imagine why someone would invest so much money for something that has no significance whatsoever,'' said Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired Pennsylvania psychiatrist who runs the Web site Quackwatch

A frequent critic of the NIH alternative medicine program, Barrett said it made no sense to include activities such as prayer under the rubric of alternative medicine. "Praying for one's own health is not an alternative medicine,'' he said. "Everyone who prays, prays for their own health."

Therapies such as massage, which are labeled as alternative medicine, are often used by mainstream medical practices, Barrett noted. Hypnosis and "progressive relaxation," also on the survey list, are techniques used by conventional psychotherapists.

I'm afraid I have to disagree with the esteemed Dr. Barrett on this one: prayer most definitely is "alternative" medicine, if by "alternative" one means any curative method without a solid scientific rationale to it. As for hypnosis and progressive relaxation being validated by their practice by psychotherapists, in my eyes at least, that very fact is enough to damn them outright as pseudoscientific claptrap. The talking cures peddled by psychotherapists at hundreds of dollars an hour give no greater benefits than any that might be recieved from any other technique that relies on the placebo mechanism; in fact, if I were forced to recommend one of the two, I'd go for prayer before psychotherapy - at least it costs nothing more than a little of one's own time.

On a final note, I've got to say that the exploding popularity of the Atkins Diet says something about the appetite* of lots of people for shortcuts to success. The reality of dieting is really quite simple - one has to consume less energy than one expends in activity over a sustained period of time, and no particular dietary mix will do anything whatsoever to negate this simple equation. As far as I can make out, the whole "ketosis" mumbo-jumbo peddled as an explanation for the wonder-working powers of the Atkins diet is so much rubbish, as the truth is that lots of human societies have subsisted primarily on animal protein for long periods, to no ill effects, and certainly not to the detriment of their body weight. The Neandertals almost certainly lived on little other than meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but they too would have gotten grotesquely fat if all they did with their days was sit in offices, followed by evenings spent watching sitcoms on the Laz-E-Boy.

If people really want to lose weight, the choice they face is a simple one - eat less and/or be more physically active. No miracle diet will help one get over the fact that one loves eating too much to abjure stuffing oneself, or that the mere thought of even moderate physical exertion makes one ill. Food faddism is just one more example of magical thinking in operation.

*Pun intended