The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Good News – Alt-Med Gets Whacked in 2009

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 6, 2010

It looks like, upon looking back at the year 2009, that in many ways it was a good one for science & skepticism – at least, it was good for medical science.  That’s because, according to a breakdown by, various forms of alt-med woo woo got a well-deserved smackdown.  That’s because a number of popular alt-med ideas were – gasp!actually tested out under controlled conditions to see if they actually do what their practitioners claim.  Let’s look at the results…


Reiki is a spiritual practice developed in Japan in the early 20th century that, in the hands of Westerners, has evolved into a new-age healing practice. Popular in Hawaii and California by the 1970s, reiki has since become a staple at health spas and in granola-loving cities across the United States.

Reiki involves a practitioner (that is, someone who has taken a couple days of training) who places her hands on or just above a patient’s body to transmit healing energy — the “ki” or reiki, better known as qi in Chinese traditional medicine. Reiki has all the trappings of new-age healing: restoring balance and instilling life energy through mysticism and/or vibrational energy. Akin to a hands-off massage, reiki is said to relieve stress, fatigue and depression and promote self-healing for just about any disease, including cancer.

The two largest scientific reviews of reiki, published last year in International Journal of Clinical PracticeJournal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, reveal that reiki is not an effective treatment for any condition. and in November 2009 in the Also in 2009, the U.S. Catholic Church weighed in, stating at a March meeting of bishops that, “since Reiki therapy is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence, it would be inappropriate for… Catholic health care facilities… to provide support for Reiki therapy.”

Reiki is not an outright scam; the practitioners seem to believe in what they are doing. In the end the soft music and whispery speech of the practitioners during the reiki sessions merely helps one relax.

Well, regardless of the Catholic Church’s theological opinion on reiki, one thing is clear: the science shows that, despite the fervent belief held by its practitioners, reiki doesn’t work. I can wave my hands in the air just as well as a “qualified” reiki practitioner and achieve exactly the same results… nothing at all. What’s next?

Reflexology or zone therapy

What’s the connection between the center of the ball of the left foot and the heart? Apparently nothing, according to systematic reviews of reflexology, or zone therapy, the practice of massaging the feet and sometimes hands or ears to cure disease.

Maybe you’ve seen the charts. The toes are somehow connected to the head and sinuses. There’s a spot in the middle of the foot that can help control diabetes, and next to that is the fresh-breath button. Foot massages sure do feel great. But “feel great” and “cure halitosis” are two different things.

As summed up in a study of over 250 adults, published in November-December 2009 issue of the journal Heart & Lung, reflexology and other massage techniques had no effect for heart surgery patients on postoperative mood, pain, anxiety, hospital stay and several other measures. (Actually, anxiety was lower in the group not getting the foot massage.)

This study follows systematic reviews published in September 2009 in the Medical Journal of Australia and in June 2008 by Taiwanese researchers in the Journal of Advanced Nursing finding no evidence that reflexology helps any condition.

So the bottom line is this: if your feet hurt, get a foot massage; if you’re recovering from heart surgery, for frak’s sake go see a cardiologist!  Sheesh!


Homeopathy is the use of physically impossible or implausible dilutions of medicines — or, poisons, actually, for homeopathy’s main tenet is “like kills like” — to cure just about anything. Numerous studies in 2009 found homeopathy to be either useless or marginally better than a placebo. But results tilt towards the “useless” side when the studies are bigger and the diseases are more serious.

In April in the journal Intervention Review, British researchers reported that there’s no evidence to support the use of homeopathy to treat the adverse effects of cancer treatment. In June in the journal Primary Care, a systematic review found homeopathy to be ineffective for weight loss. In October in the Annals of Oncology, more researchers reported no benefit from homeopathy in cancer treatment. And a medical perspective in JAMA in October detailed the lack of oversight for homeopathic products. (Maybe that’s why they don’t work.)

Also, in August 2009, the World Health Organization felt the need to make an official statement warning against the use of homeopathy for serious diseases, such as HIV, TB and malaria, after word spread that homeopathy was being promoted in some developing countries.

To be fair, the Faculty of Homeopathy, a UK-based professional society, lists numerous randomized, controlled trials on its website from previous years demonstrating the efficacy of homeopathy. If you want lots of positive results, you can always subscribe to the journal Homeopathy. And so the debate continues.

Actually, as far as I’m concerned – until the homeopaths can come up with some kind of plausible physical mechanism by which their woo-woo is supposed to work (as opposed to random hand-waving explanations) – the debate is DOA.  Otherwise their claims amount to little more than a dragon in the garage. This silliness reminds me of a joke:

A man is strolling down the street, completely naked.  A cop driving by pulls over and arrests the man for indecent exposure.  As the man is being put into the cop car, he protests loudly by stating: “But officer, I’m not naked – I’m wearing my homeopathic pants!” 🙂

Moving on…

Magnetic therapy

Unlike many alternative therapies that come with ample amounts of good intentions, magnetic therapy seems like an outright scam. Most manufacturers know the magnets have no proven benefit for health, and yet magnets are added to everything from headbands to back braces to shoe inserts.

The basic premise, that magnets somehow improve blood flow, defies physics. The iron in your blood is bound to hemoglobin and is not attracted to magnets of any strength. This is a good thing. Otherwise you’d blow up in an MRI machine, with magnets thousands of times more powerful than your shoe insert.

Also, the magnets in most magnetic therapeutic devices are far too weak to penetrate the skin, particularly through clothing such as socks. Simply cover a magnetic shoe insert with a sock and try to attract something as light as a paper clip.

Nevertheless, some people swear by them, and some researchers still have the stamina to test these despite decades of negative results. And so, as published in August 2009 in Rheumatology International Clinical and Experimental Investigations, magnetic therapy did not improve the chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia.

The deathblow to magnet therapy should have been the large, randomized, double-blinded study on pain published in 2007 in Anesthesia & Analgesia. Yet sales of therapeutic magnets remain legal.

This one annoys me, as a physicist, to no end.  The point about the MRI machines is particularly relevant – MRI machines generate magnetic fields many, many thousands (in some cases millions) of times more powerful than the crappy little magnets sold by these alt-med hucksters to the gullible.  And an MRI machine is a diagnostic tool – it doesn’t treat or cure anything!  So, just do the math folks… and save your money when approached by the next bogus magnetic therapy ad you see.

Last, but not least…


Herbs hold great healing promise. Many common drugs, such as aspirin and digitalin, were either once or continue to be synthesized from botanical herbs. Yet herbs can be deadly, too. Kava is one such herb, taken for relaxation. When mixed with alcohol, it can kill you. This is likely not the level of relaxation you are after. Also, the leaves and stems (but not the roots) can be toxic to the liver. Kava is indeed banned in many countries through Europe, where herbal medicine is otherwise popular.

In systematic reviews of kava and other herbals published in September 2009 in the journal Drugs and in Integrative Cancer Therapies, researchers found kava to be more trouble than it is worth, because it interferes with real medicines for cancer and other diseases.

Kava is not without its merits. Kava root is mixed into a drink in many South Pacific countries with few adverse effects, other than those that mimic alcohol abuse. Some studies have shown kava’s value in treating anxiety and depression from a specially prepared root extract. But despite the availability of kava on supermarket shelves, because of potential toxicity and drug interference, it is best to check with a doctor before self-prescribing this herb.

That last point cannot be emphasized enough, in my opinion.  One of the dangers of buying into the alt-med, herbal remedy, “natural is good” philosophy is that it often leads people to circumvent the trustworthy medical process and go down the road of self-diagnosis & self-medication – which is sometimes very dangerous!  It’s even more dangerous when self-medicating with some untested herb that is being pushed by someone who doesn’t have relevant medical training.  For more info on this, check out what the potential harm is of self-medicating with herbs like kava.

So what is likely to be the response of many in the alt-med community to this news?  My guess is that rather than acknowledge that the scientific process has put their cherished ideas to the test and found them lacking, they’ll instead attack the entire endeavor of medical science.  This is often done by various alt-med woos when they drone on and on about various conspiracy theories involving “Big Pharma”, the government, doctors, and medical scientists.

And they can rant on all they want, it still won’t make their bogus therapies work.  Self-delusion is sad to see.

10 Responses to “Good News – Alt-Med Gets Whacked in 2009”

  1. U.S. Census data reported that in the preceding three years, total spending for alternative care grew by 83%, from $10.3 billion in 1987 to $18.9 billion in 1990, while total expenditures paid to mainstream physicians increased by 56%, from $90 billion to $141 billion. Not since President Nixon brought acupuncture back from China has interest in alternative medicine been so great.

    Utilization went up from 33.8% of the American public in 1990 to well over 50% in 1998. There were 427 million CAM visits in 1990, and that number increased to over 629 million in 1997, a 47.3% increase in just seven years! Spending for CAM therapies, including nutritional and botanical/herbal supplements in 1998, totaled $18 billion OUT-OF-POCKET! Overall CAM patient satisfaction rates are greater than 75%. And if that’s not enough, perhaps this is the clincher: current CAM visits far outnumber visits to any and all primary care physicians 2.1:1.

    A follow-up study published in the November 11, 1998 issue of the Journal of the AMA reported a 47.3% increase in visits to alternative medicine practitioners, from 427 million in 1990 to 629 million in 1997 – a number that exceeded total visits to all US primary care physicians.

    A federally funded survey in 2007 found that in the previous year nearly 5 million Americans used homeopathic remedies,

    Annual revenues in Western Europe reached US$ 5 billion in 2003-2004. In China sales of products totaled US$ 14 billion in 2005.

    In Australia alone, a study conducted in 2004 show that more than 1.9 million consultations of the alternative therapies including homeopathy take place with a turnover of 85 million AUD.

    • mattusmaximus said

      None of which speaks to the efficacy of these various forms of alt-med “therapies” – all this info shows is that there are a LOT of gullible people out there who buy into the alt-med snake-oil.

  2. Mike Callas said

    It’s clear that your connection to Spirit is at the very least, highly compromised, that is if you’ve viewed any of the evidence about Spirit. It’s almost as if Science and all its arrogance is your God. Intereseting you bring the Church in to back up your scientific evidence, as if Christianity is the only religion. Careful Spirit doesn’t come bite you on the butt.

  3. Reiki Healer said

    For all the skeptics…more power to you. Any healing that takes place has more to do with the faith you have that the person you trust can help heal you. That goes for the wonderful MD’s we have. If you do not have faith in their abilities, then they can try all they want and they cannot help you.

    Let look at something else. How long have Medical doctors been around? Maybe about 400 years and about only 150 years ago MDs thought is was a great idea to ‘bleed’ their patients to get the sick blood out. Many patients during this practice.

    The idea of going to school to learn how to heal the body was to squeeze out healers who had many generations of training. This was passed down from mother to daughter. Read your history the famous Salem Witch trials were created to deter these healers from practicing. It had more to do with medicine than voodoo.

    Reiki, Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine have been around for thousands of years. So why is that???

    I would never tell anyone not to go to a medical professional of any kind. It’s articles like this that show that people learn so little from education. Read a history book sometime. I’m sorry energy work didn’t work for you. But energy work helps many people.

  4. Chanel said

    Have you ever received a reiki session? Or other holistic practice?

    Can you cite where you obtained your information for further inquiry?


    • mattusmaximus said

      No, I would rather put my time & resources into something that actually works, like *real* medicine.

  5. Chris said

    Is there ANY room for a middle ground?

    Here’s my thinking. All of these claims should be rigorously tested for efficacy in controlled studies. No contest. There is a whole lot of crap out there, without question.

    Where I run into problems with hard line skepticism is when things are thrown out on the basis of a lack of plausible mechanism. There may be features of reality that aren’t accounted for in the physical model of the universe that you using as the ultimate test. If there is something there, you are throwing it out before even looking. I guess that the underlying assumption I’m disputing is that our current scientific understanding of the universe is not only correct (which I agree with) but also essentially complete (which I don’t agree with.)

    Now, the explanations given by the new age woo folks are almost undoubtedly incorrect. They drive me nuts, too.


    The proponents of “woo” put forth a bad model. Ignoring those, the claims also don’t have a plausible mechanism within the current scientific context. Neither of these things mean that something isn’t occurring by some mechanism outside of the current scientific model, that also

    It’s like there’s a fundamentalist world view on both sides of the argument. Forget your need for a mechanism. Let the statistics speak.

    If there IS some mechanism operating outside of the current model, it will never be seen if the criteria is: It’s not real if it doesn’t fit into our model.

    It’s probably not there, but why not take the HONEST look in the spirit of inquiry, rather than in an effort to debunk? If none of it is true, the honest look will show that, too.

    • This, sir, is a fine example of the Middle Ground Fallacy, about which you can read here and
      The lack of a plausible mechanism (or its best buddy, Occam’s Razor) is a tool for hypothesis selection. The scientific method tells you how to test a hypothesis, but how do you choose what to do first? This is not as simple as it sounds.
      Suppose I want to wast your time. I tell you “My hypothesis is that psoriasis is caused by eating fruit picked on a new moon”. Notice that the causes of psoriasis are indeed a bit of a an open problem currently.

      Then you do an experiment and you find out that there is no correlation: people get or don’t get psoriasis regardless of when the fruit they eat was picked – once other factors have been removed from the data analysis.
      Then I tell you “Wait, it is not just the phase of the moon, it is also the astrological sign the Sun is in!”. And you go and do more experiments and statistical analisys. Still no correlation.
      Again I tell me, “Oh. I am sorry, it must be the relative position of the planets”. By this point you would be justified in telling me to go hang myself – all these experiments and analysis cost money.
      As a scientist, you would know that it pays to aim your inquiries in directions where there is some precedent. Psoriasis is not a totally strange and bizarre phenomenon. It happens on the skin. Let’s look into things-that-produce-skin-diseases and there is a big list: virus, bacteria, allergic conditions, nutrition imbalances, genetic diseases. For each of these types of hypothesis, the scientific method, that spirit of inquiry you mention, tells you how to test it.
      Some hypotheses can be rejected outright: maybe psoriasis is caused by radiation from cellphones! No, it is not: there was psoriasis millenia before cellphones. No need to experiment much here.

      At a certain point you will have to start looking into the stranger, the unprecedented. And this is exactly what science does. There were decades of research into the photoeletric effect, and very little satisfying explanation as to its causes. Plenty of experimental data, but many dead and broken hypotheses. Then Einstein gives this explanation that is based on photons, indivisible particles of light. Strange! Weird! But it fit the data better than other more “normal” (for the then current value of normal) explanations AND it could be tested experimentally. The scientific community did NOT rush into the Einstein explanation. At first there was resistance, then experiments were made, the hypothesis held. This is science. It is slow, it is difficult and it may be incredibly boring, but it works.

      So, to go back to your original point, what makes things like reiki repellent to the skeptic is indeed that there is no understandable mode of action. Qi, auras, invisible energies that do not register on any device are hard to swallow, just like photons were. But the big difference is that reiki can be explained perfectly well with known mechanisms like the placebo effect. So, unless somebody shows phenomena related to reiki (or homeopathy or Catholic relics or qi channeling, whatever) that cannot be explained with good old science, I see no great advantage in doing giant trials. Because it is not like the data just comes at you, waiting to be interpreted. You have to dig for it. And that digging needs a guide. The best guide we have is of a skeptical nature: all the other ones were eaten by tigers, if you will allow me a metaphor.

      And, if you think of it, this is also the same worldview you would use in explaining a sudden noise coming from your kitchen. You would start by eliminating known modes of action and only then you would start thinking about invisible energy fields emanating from your cat that make the pots rattle. Why should science be different?

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