Alternative health and the end of the age of reason

In London, years ago, a friend took to wearing decoration inspired by the major religions. Round his neck he wore a rosary and a crucifix, he had a tattoo of a Hindu god on his arm and on the back of his short-sleeved jacket was written ''There is no god but Allah''. One day, he went to Brick Lane market. A market trader smiled and said: ''You are a good religious boy.'' But then an old man took exception to his garb, shouted: ''You crazy, you crazy, you believe in everything,'' and chased him down the street, waving a stick. I thought about this when I heard the story of Stephen Hall, who, shortly before he died of terminal cancer paid more than (pounds) 2000 to a ''wellness practitioner'' for a 'high frequency therapy device'' he was told would cure him.

The device was no more effective at dealing with his disease than a hot water bottle and the practitioner who sold it to him is awaiting what may be a custodial sentence for breaking two articles of the Trades Description Act. Hall was very vulnerable and he went further in his faith in the inexplicable than most, but he was not unusual. You could not throw up a dose of herbs in most offices without hitting someone who is using contemporary or alternative medicine (Cams). And it seems to me that, although the modern west

is characterised as an increasingly cynical and atheistic place, at the same time, people have never managed to believe in so much all at once. Despite the fact that the Victorian age was the heyday of organised Christianity, it was also characterised by a mindset that was rational. It was an age of certainty, of scientific curiosity, an age of reason.

There were dabblers in the occult, mediums, spiritualists and all kinds of strange practices, but they were peripheral and scoffed at by the men of letters who dominated public life. No longer. The growth of Cams is one example of this. Currently, 75% of people think alternative medicine should be available on the NHS. It is not socially acceptable to
question people who are undergoing treatment that does not measure up to any standard of scientific proof. Cams shade off from sensually pleasurable experiences like massage to the downright ridiculous, like kinesiology, where the practitioner holds a vial containing a certain food stuff above the arm and judges if the body is rejecting it by becoming floppier, iridology – diagnosis of all kinds of illnesses by looking at the iris, colour therapy and so on.

There are victims of this widespread cultural acceptance of the irrational. Last year, epileptic toddler Isabella Denley died in Australia after her parents ditched her
medication because of its side effects, and replaced it with Cams, including a psychic who said the child’s condition resulted from a past-life trauma. It is true that nobody has a monopoly on truth and that we must remain open-minded. But the scepticism many people display towards conventional religion sometimes seems to dissolve when they are
confronted with Cams. There is a level on which these may work even if it is not the level on which they are presented as working.

Human beings are complex and it is important to remember that the separation between
the mind and the body is only ever a theoretical one. Patients sometimes describe their encounter with alternative healers as being ”a bit like therapy” and perhaps the improvement they can find in their condition is to do with creating space in which to look at and perhaps deal with, painful things that happen in life. Another aspect of Cams
may be their ability to produce a change of attitude to the pain the patient is experiencing.

Psychotherapists believe that paying for therapy is an important part of feeling that one is addressing the problem. One thing that is indisputable is the placebo effect. Each new
study comes up with more evidence of the power of this magical phenomenon. Simply put, it affects the control group who are not actually receiving any treatment, but who believe they are and therefore convince themselves they have got better.

Conventional medicine, too, has sometimes to bow to this – the first test of surgery against placebo a couple of years ago found that people who thought they had had surgery
on painful knees were better than people who had had real surgery, even two years later. Conventional medicine could value the placebo more highly.

The awkward stand-off between the anxious parent who has brought, say a baby with a chesty cough to the doctor, feeling it is the right thing to do, and the GP who sees them as ”demanding” the only medicine he or she really has in his armoury, antibiotics, could be
resolved more gently.

Recommending say, putting Vicks on the child’s chest and burning eucalyptus oil in the room, may have little real use, but they could harness the placebo effect, and faith can be a powerful thing. But at the same time, a culture that loses its scepticism towards
unproven claims, and in this sense believes in everything, is one that is coming to the end of the age of reason.

The Scottish Herald
December 24th 2003