Have you ever taken a drug that you know for sure works, because you could feel the difference it made?
It simply isn't humanly possible.
So go click some links, spend a few hours learning, come back and read this here post some other time...
You're back I see. That's some crazy stuff, right? I'm totally not over it yet either. But hey, this is the world we live in, we gotta work with what we got.
Because the term for something which actually works is just "medicine".
There isn't an "alternative chemistry" industry, which seeks to revive the forgotten wisdom of alchemy.
Health care is the one area where a very significant portion of the population sees ignoring all the progress science has made in understanding how things work as being a good thing.
Brief digression for a general science lesson:
Almost everything we commonly think of as "energy" is some form of electromagnatism. Electricity, obviously. And magnets. The entire planet is covered in a giant magnet field, which is why compasses point North. You can actually see it at the poles, in the form of the Northern (and Southern) Lights
If you can remember back to high school science class, you may realize the close relationship between electricity and magnets: wrap a live wire around a piece of iron, you have an electromagnet. Move a magnet back and forth inside of a coil of wire, it generates electricity. That relationship is how every electric generator and every electric motor works.
Then there are electromagnetic waves. Sounds fancy and sciency, right? Its just the technical term for "light". It's all light waves. Like, the stuff you can see with your eyes, blue and purple and green.
All the different colors of light are arranged in order of how big the light wave is: purple has a small light wave, red has a big one. That's why rainbows in the sky are in the order they are in. You can't see it, but the rainbow keeps going, in both directions. Above purple is ultraviolet (Latin, for "above violet" - hey, what do ya know about that!). We can't see it with our eyes, but it is there. If you happened to be a bee, you would see it. Below red is infrared ("below red") light. Again, our eyes can't see it, but it is there. If you put a thermometer just below the red light coming off of a prism, you will see it gets hotter as you go down from purple toward red, and gets even hotter just below red. Infrared light is where heat lamps get their heat, and it's what night vision goggles see.
But it doesn't stop there.
Microwaves, TV and radio signals, cell phone signals, x-rays, WI FI, radar, it is all light. A microwave is just a color. One which the human eye can't see, but the only difference between microwaves and blue is the size of the wave. All an antenna is is a mechanical eyeball. A radio sees radiowaves just like your eye sees green.
Even if you personally don't fully understand all the details, realize that it isn't a mystery, all this is very well understood. It isn't even all that complex. We know how energy works. If there is a "life force", it is within the forces that exist in the universe. And in fact, our nervous system runs on electricity. Our thoughts, our movements, every part of being alive, it is all powered by chemical energy, adenosine triphosphate breaking down to adenosine diphosphate, and releasing electrically charged ions that can do work in the process. If you click that last link and try to read it, unless you happen to have been a molecular biology major, chances are most of it is hard to follow. The important thing to realize is that, as insanely complex as living things are, we have an amazingly high amount of this stuff figured out.
Every single day, even without injury or illness, your body creates 300 billion new cells, to replace old worn out ones. You may have heard the claim that the entire body is replaced every 7-10 years. It isn't exactly right - different body parts renew at different rates. Some take 16 years. Some are replaced every few days. But, aside from brain cells, your entire body really does replace itself on an ongoing basis.
This is how you heal after injury. Give the body enough time, and it will replace damaged cells, without you doing anything at all.
Our immune system is more powerful and effective than any drug or remedy humans have ever invented - in fact, the single biggest medical innovation of all time - the vaccine - isn't actually a medicine at all, it is just a way to teach the body's natural immune system how to do its job a little better.
Certainly if you have cancer, or a severe bacterial infection, a compound fracture, diabetes or appendicitis, modern health care can mean the difference between loss of life or limb, and a full recovery. But for the vast majority of ailments, both physical injury and pathogen, the best possible thing you can do is support your own general health: stay physically fit (balance intense exercise with sufficient rest and recovery), get enough nutrients and calories (but not too many calories), get enough sleep (every night!), and keep emotional stress to a minimum (which, believe it or not, has very little to do with your life circumstances. It is almost entirely about your outlook).
These four lifestyle choices: exercise, nutrition, sleep, and optimism, correlate far more strongly to overall health than access to any particular form of health care or treatment, more even than access to any form of healthcare at all.
With no treatment, just time and nutrition and rest.
That is without even considering the placebo effect.
Placebos genuinely make people feel better - and that has much more significance than you realize. It affects you more than you ever realized, and more than you want to admit. This is why you got my first question, in the opening line to this essay, wrong. You can not know a medicine, or any medical procedure is working because you "feel" it working, because there is no possible way you can control for the placebo effect in your own personal first hand experience.
Investigation into the placebo effect
I know, you already know about placebos.
Remember that question I opened this blog post with?
"Have you ever taken a drug that you know for sure works, because you could feel the difference it made?"
If you answered "yes" to that question (and admit it, you did), then you don't really understand the significance of the placebo effect. You may understand, intellectually, that it happens, but there is a disconnect, a cognitive dissonance, where you think you are an exception. You think you can feel the difference a drug or physical therapy makes objectively. Placebos seem like a fascinating phenomenon that affects other people. Millions and millions of other people.
Even if you accept that, for example, you don't always know all of your subconscious motivations for your behavior, everyone thinks they can "know" their own physical body objectively.
But believing that is just as ridiculous as thinking you can "tell" from the moment of conception that you are pregnant (it takes between one and two weeks for the egg to implant, so there is no change to feel before then), or that you can "feel" when somebody is looking at you, (you can't).
You would think every single medical professional, in any field, would know this stuff, but the unfortunate reality is that doctors aren't remotely scientists in any sense of the word. Not just the "alternative" folk, but regular, med school graduating, AMA member, licensed professional doctors. They are largely guessing. They don't keep up on research. They get influenced by the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, and by what school they happened to go to and what their co-workers happen to beileve:
Read it. It's scary stuff. You should not 'trust' your doctor. Doctors are just people, and they make all the same normal mistakes that all humans make. Question them. Get a second opinion, from a doctor in a totally different field. Get a third opinion. Take advantage of the age of the internet and do some research on your own. Try to prove them wrong, even if you suspect they are right. Every good scientist sets out to prove her own hypothesis wrong before publishing, because it's in searching for contrary data that confirmation bias is undermined. Its easy to find what you are looking for, but finding what you are looking for is poor evidence that you are actually right. Search for what you aren't looking for.
The engineer designs brand new inventions, and to do that they have to have extensive understanding of materials science, newtonian physics, mechanics, and advanced mathematics. The mechanic only needs to understand enough mechanics to figure out how the thing the engineer designed is supposed to work, in order to fix it when it breaks. It is an important job (its MY job!), but you shouldn't assume a mechanic understands all of the how and why of which materials were chosen or why they were put together just so.
A doctor is a mechanic for the body.
All that uncertainty makes people turn away from modern medicine, and to "alternative" medicine, but that's even worse. Much much worse. By definition, alternative medicine is anything which has been already proven in tests to NOT work.
Some people suggest never eating anything with an ingredient list you don't recognize and can't pronounce.
You want to see a list of scary looking chemicals?
inactivated alkaline phosphatase
C16:0 ß-hydroxy fatty acids
conjugated linoleic acid*
blood serum albumin
high proline micelle
*(which is a TRANSfat omg!!!!!!!! - but wait, aren't transfats all man-made and added by the evil food industry???? What's that? Some transfats are naturally occurring? How can that be, when everything natural is good and healthy, and all transfats are created by evil corporations??)
A chemical is anything that is made of matter. In other words, everything. Everything you eat and drink is made of chemicals. You are made of chemicals. Everything you can see or touch or smell is made of chemicals. Nothing exists that isn't chemicals. This is not just semantics. Whenever anyone says anything about "chemicals" meaning something "unnatural" or toxic or synthetic or whatever, its coming from ignorance of science.
There are laws requiring the drug company to extensively test their product for effectiveness and side-effects before they are allowed to sell it, while anything not officially classified as a drug has almost no regulations and no testing standards.
This seems to be one of the biggest reasons that alternative medicine is still so popular, despite being proven not to work over and over again. Its not just that everyone is superstitious. It's that mainstream medicine has been so totally enveloped by capitalism that doctors don't have time to treat their patients like people. Which makes people prefer to gravitate to those who actually do treat them like people.
Compounded by the fact that such a huge amount of physical illness really is closely tied in with the mental and emotional (up to 90% of all doctor visits are for "conditions" caused by plain old emotional stress); sometimes the alternative practitioner really does get better results - just not because of their actual treatments.
The results are despite the treatments; they are because of the emotional connection they build with the patient.
Questioning their belief is seen as a character attack. Even though the same person might dispute a particular religion even while they have close personal friends or relatives who hold that religion, or dispute an economic theory without feeling it is an attack on all who believe it.
Nobody likes to feel stupid, and we especially hate feeling like suckers. So, instead of correcting the view later once we have more information, we usually ignore the new information, or look for a way to justify the old belief.
If you read some of the links on placebo, there are lots of examples of people asking to continue their treatment even after they are told it was fake! They KNEW the drug wasn't helping, but they were afraid to change the conditions that led to feeling better. It's an extreme example of the natural human faulty reasoning of post hoc ergo prompter hoc which is the basis of most forms of superstition. If humans do that even when they know for sure the drug was a fake, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that people will cling to treatments that, as far as they know, might actually be working - even if that "might" is just based on not knowing enough biology and related science to objectively evaluate it.
The treatments always seem to "work" in that the person gets better - or, at least, feels better temporarily.
Of course, there is a huge difference between feeling better for a little while, and actually getting better.
This is when it really gets me - when the "treatment" isn't even supposedly a cure, when the "treatment" is supposed to continue indefinitely. I have no numbers to back this up, so maybe I'm wrong, but from personal observation, alternative health care providers seem to much more frequently prescribe "treatments" to patients which are supposed to be regular, and for a lifetime.
This seems to be particularly prevalent among the various structuralists, and in particular following any large - but one-time - injury. Remember when I pointed out that the entire body renews itself regularly? Different bones heal at different rates, anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months. Torn muscles, tendons, and ligaments, heal within 2 months, and even the most severe damage, that requiring surgery to reattach something torn all the way through, heals within 4 months. If a person is being treated for an injury that occurred years ago, they aren't really being treated for that injury at all. That injury has long since healed on its own.
Its important to keep in mind - even with a scientifically validated drug or surgery or other procedure, nothing that medical care can do can actually heal you. Only the body can do that. The best treatments serve to facilitate that healing, to remove any obstacles to healing. Health is the body's default natural state.
I am beginning to suspect that in some of these cases the "cure" itself is actually prolonging the problem.
Sometimes this is by interfering with the body's natural self-healing. Sometimes they may make things worse by direct action - unintended drug interactions and side effects, or physical therapies that damage tissues.
In some cases the treatment may prolong injury in the same way that cold remedies do: they make the patient feel better (temporarily), and with their pain masked, they don't rest as much as they need to in order to allow the body to heal. Contrariwise, oftentimes a person will be told to avoid use of a body part for so long that the muscles and tendons get weak and inflexible, which in turn makes them more prone to future injury.
The most obvious example of this is back injuries. Someone who has ever strained their back tries to avoid ever doing anything that might stress it, and consequently the muscles bones tendons and ligaments of the lower core atrophy and get weaker and weaker, to the point where they are at much higher risk of injury than they would have been if they had taken the opposite approach, and engaged in a (careful, gradual) consistent program of progressive-load weight-bearing resistance training, and higher risk even then if they had just maintained normal everyday activities.
Most of the time the treatment itself is probably neutral, but the false diagnoses produces a "nocebo effect". They tell you something is wrong with you, they tell you to expect certain symptoms (unless you let them heal you), and you experience what you are expecting. They tell you the symptoms will recur within a certain amount of time, and because you are expecting it, you feel it. The nocebo effect is equally as strong as the placebo effect. You may recall from some of the links above how being told to expect certain negative side effects caused them intensely in patients of both fake drugs and fake acupuncture.
I don't think the practitioner does this deliberately, any more than bloodletters and other dark age doctors who killed more of their patients than they helped did it deliberately. But as a patient, we all owe it to ourselves not to put blind faith in an industry or ideology which has gotten so much wrong all throughout history, and whose track record even today is - debatable. At best.
Look at the 4 humors, or bloodletting, or leeches, exorcisms, lobotomies, and the hundreds of downright silly superstitions that nearly every culture has had at some point - so much stuff that we look back on now and think "what in the hell could those people possibly have been thinking?"