Penn and Teller take a look at alternative medicine

March 3, 2012 | By | 24 Replies More

Penn and Teller take a look at alternative medicine, and find a lot of bullshit:

The targets include magnet therapy, reflexology and chiropractic.


Category: Fraud, ignorance, snake oil

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (24)

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  1. Adam Herman says:

    Oh, you’re going to piss off some of your audience with this one.

    But yeah, alternative medicine, definitely bullshit for the most part.

    The really funny thing is how much of a corporate scam it is. The same people who are generally anti-corporate will lay down in front of a train to protect this multi-billion dollar industry from any regulation whatsoever.

  2. Jim Razinha says:

    I don’t know who said it, but I’ve been repeating it for years: if alternative medicine were real medicine, it would be called…medicine. And that includes chiropractic, as they point out – Martin Gardner ripped the scam in 1950 (Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.)

    And I always loved James Randi “overdosing” on homeopathic sleeping pills.

  3. Mike M. says:

    Hi, Jim – I have to disagree with you here. Your “Medicine” (aka your “Real Medicine”) = whatever drugs Big Pharma can manufacture, control, market and then sell at an absurd profit to sick end users.
    My “medicine” (aka my “real medicine”) = whatever drugs, plants, foods and/or therapies work to produce beneficial effects in the ailing end user. Placebos are effective medicines if and only if they work. And they do in some cases, it’s been proven. Marijuana is medicine because it works to lessen nausea, increase appetite and reduce pain -also proven. MDMA (Ecstasy) works to cure PTSD and other psychological traumas -very strong evidence from multiple legit studies of its effectiveness in these areas. Guided meditation, hypnosis, and sensory deprivation can also be effective medical treatments. Honey is medicine, garlic is medicine, fish oil is medicine, ayahuasca is medicine, mint is medicine, etc etc.
    Just because the FDA, the AMA, and their Big Pharma partners can’t control and profit from these alternative medicines does not mean they are not “Medicine.” Real medicine is whatever works (for you). The truth is out there. Why let the profiteers define and limit your cures?
    Why be the ventriloquist’s dummy?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I’m suspicious of mainstream medicine. The profit motive warps many of the treatments dispensed. I’m even more suspicious of most alternative medicine because most treatments are not effective enough to pass double-blind studies. Alternative medicine practitioners also have a profit motive for over-selling what they do. I’m suspicious of both–no need to choose either-or. And when the video showed the chiropractic cracking of a woman’s neck, I winced. I will never allow anyone to do that to me or to anyone I love.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      Hmmm…. I wonder what the pharmacological industry and the AMA have to say about psychic surgeons? I’ll bet you can’t even see their lips move.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      Couple of points:
      I think it is important to distinguish “medicines” from “medicine”, or if you prefer “Medicines” from “medicine”. There’s a simple litmus test: if it’s “real” Medicine, Pfizer would have patented it and made a bunch of money.

      On the alternative kick, I have a real problem with homeopathic stuff being on the shelves next to over the counter meds, implying legitimacy.

      Homeopathic claims may rely on placebo effects, which as you point out, Mike, might be real, but then they might be not real. Regardless, I think it wrong to call a placebo “medicine”. The placebo effect, while seemingly well documented as an effect, might be a misreading of the data, or mis-attribution of changes to the placebo and not other factors (found the answer, so stopped looking). The New England Journal of Medicine (capital “M”, but a respected one) published a study in 2001 titled, “Is the Placebo Powerless? — An Analysis of Clinical Trials Comparing Placebo with No Treatment”, finding no effect of placebos vs no treatment in trials with objective outcomes, but some effect in small trials, trials with subjective outcomes, or trials involving pain. With the trials that seemed to have a positive effect, the study could not review any psychological effect of the patient/provider, and the trials chosen for study attempted to exclude those with probable observer bias. There’s a lot more to the findings, but the paper concluded with

      In conclusion, we found little evidence that placebos in general have powerful clinical effects. Placebos had no significant pooled effect on subjective or objective binary or continuous objective outcomes. We found significant effects of placebo on continuous subjective outcomes and for the treatment of pain but also bias related to larger effects in small trials. The use of placebo outside the aegis of a controlled, properly designed clinical trial cannot be recommended.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      While I like a lot of what I saw of what Penn Jillette did on that show (the feng shui was priceless), they did one segment in their first season on secondhand smoke (using the title of the show to describe effects of it) that surprised me…and not in a good way. Even smart skeptics can out think themselves.

      My wife once gave our youngest son a homeopathic cough “medicine” (that some nutcase gave her and she never tossed) when we ran out of the traditional OTC stuff. When his cough appeared to subside for a short while, she had him call me and say,”Mom says you’re going to be annoyed…” The apparent effect didn’t last long, but was perceived as longer than it really was, yet to me, no longer than any of the other respites between fits. I had no idea we had that crap in the house. Not anymore.

      And with that, I have to go take some homeopathic duck feces in a glass of water that has a memory of once been shat in.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    As I see it, the majority of alternative medicine is nonsense. Penn Gillette has a tendency to assume that any thing labeled as alternative is bullshit. Keep in mind that the pharma industry has been known to fight affordable alternatives to their expensive drugs.

    For example, fish oil has long proven beneficial for controlling cholesterol, and for many years it was dismissed as part of an alternative medicine. The national institute of health is working to determine the effectiveness of alternative medicine. This information is available to the public at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) .

    The NCCAM Info seems to be objective.

    Their take on magnet, reflexology and chiropractic:

    Magnets: Overall, scientific evidence doe not support the use of magnets for pain relief.

    Reflexology: not listed on the site.

    Chiropractic: Studies indicated chiropractic as having some effectiveness in some cases of lower back pain, neck pain and joint pain.

  5. Adam Herman says:

    The greed of the pharma companies is unquestioned. However, they have to get FDA approval showing that their product at least does something. Alternative medicines generally don’t go through any testing or any approval process and normally the FDA doesn’t even care because they know it’s completely harmless and ineffectual.

    Now normally you would think that the government letting drugs just go on the market without regulation and testing would be the shady thing.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    The problem with FDA approval is that is is more a political process than a scientific one. Consider the case of Vioxx and similar medications known as COX-2 inhibitors. The original application for FDA approval of the medicines was for low dose use in treating a rare type of cancer, through a fast track approval process.

    For the most part, FDA approval relies on the manufacturer to provide study results, including independent testing results. This integrity system is easily corrupted as independent researchers may expect indirect compensation for favorable results, and independent, for profit labs realize that favorable results help them with repeat customers.

    In the case of COX-2 inhibitors, the selective nature of the drugs that make them less irritating to the digestive tract is also responsible of cardiovascular problems after long term usage. This was generally dismissed by management types who were under pressure to produce a profitable patented replacement for naproxen sodium, and similar medications that had achieved OTC approval.

    In the end we ended up with an anti-inflammatory drug that was less effective, much more expensive and more dangerous than OTC alternatives.

    Obviously, the FDA approval process is flawed. The has been considerable political pressure to privatize the FDA approval process.

    On a side note, libertarians tend to strongly advocate alternative medicine, additionally many practitioners sand patients of practitioners of alternative medicine vote Republican as they fear regulation and distrust corporate greed.

    There is also complementary medicine, where alternative treatments are combined with mainstream medical treatments. In some cases, nutritional supplements an augment mainstream medicine. For example, taking multivitamins for aa week or two before and after a vaccine can prevent adverse reaction among patients with nutritional deficiencies. Certain spices have been shown to aid in controlling diabetes.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I have no problem with any sort or treatment, tested or otherwise, as long as the person or entity selling the treatment makes it clear that there is A) no rigorous scientific study showing efficacy (or improved efficacy compared to an existing treatment) whenever there is no such study (Vioxx is a perfect example) B) a danger in using the treatment whenever there is danger that the seller knows or should know.

      If you learned some “medical treatment” from your Grandma, who had no medical training, I would expect that a seller should say: “I learned some “medical treatment” from my Grandma, who had no medical training.”

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Good point Erich,
    but to add to that, particularly in the internet age, signing your name with a “Dr” in front or an “MD” after doesn’t prove you graduated from an accredited medical program in the field you are practicing.

    Some states license chiropractors. They impose educational requirements for those licenses. Does this requirement place chiropractors in the same group as brain surgeons? No, and it shouldn’t.

    I have a brother-in-law who is a doctor. He has a medical degree. He is a practicing acupuncturist. (Oh did I say he has a medical degree… in pathology?)

  8. Adam Herman says:

    States also license fortune tellers. The existence of a licensing regime is evidence that the industry incumbents have influence in the government, it is not government endorsement of the profession.

    And while of course modern medicine is flawed, as is the FDA approval process, it is superior to the approval process for alternative medications. That would be because there is no process. They are mostly unregulated.

  9. Jim Razinha says:

    My son sent me this link: The Economic Argument. Fits.

  10. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Jim, my younger son is also a big fan of XKCD.

    the FDA does regulate alternative medicines… sort of. The rules concerning dietary supplements seem primarily concerned with the labeling of the products to the point of uselessness.

    Ex: Supplements may not use the words dose or dosage in the package labeling, so they substitute “serving” and “serving size” instead.

  11. michael says:

    This is the old what can you prove against what you can’t prove argument and science will never be able to prove everything. Most medical procedure used by doctors cannot be fully explained. If you listen carefully to the medical experts in the tape, you will see their explanations would also cover traditional science.
    The one expert says “most illnesses will heal on their own.” This is true, yet millions of people each week pluck down tons of money and insurance payments to their doctors to make sure they get pharmaceutical backing that inherently will do little to speed up the process. Medical science can’t even cure the common cold, but they are the authority on everything – right.
    The next expert states how ‘The power of suggestion is amazing”, that it is sales pitch. Well if the power of suggestion heals people, then most medical procedure can be BS. In fact studies have shown for the same types of symptoms, if doctors give patients high level of success, recovery is significantly higher than those told the chances for recovery are slim.
    One of the comments above state placebos have little clinical value. Well that type of BS goes against most other studies stating they do. The AMA gets about 20,000 reports a year submitted to it and you have to believe there is an awful lot of contradicting data, because experts can’t agree to how to interpret anything and even when they do, there is a good change the interpretation will be flawed. But then you can’t convince those sold on critical thinking about anything, they are always right – what a crock of BS.
    To end, modern science with all their countless billions in research does not have the cure for much of anything, other than broken bones.

  12. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Mainstream medicine is not immune to confirmation bias.

    Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common virus that cause cold-like symptoms. It is generally harmless and before the development of an RSV vaccine was considered non threatening.
    A few infants, particularly preemies can have serious life threatening infections, and most children by the age of two have had RSV. In a small number of children, the infection moves into the middle ear and becomes dormant, occasionally flaring up with symptoms mimicking an ear infection that lasts 3 or 4 days.
    Usually, when an RSV flareup occurs, a parent takes the child to the doctor, who diagnoses a bacterial, fungal or yeast infection as the cause, prescribes an antibiotic. Since the flareup lasts a few days, the parents and doctor assume the antibiotics took care of the problem and from that assumption conclude the infection was not viral.

    This inverse rationale is much more common in alternative medicine, however much of the case against all treatments considered as alternative is founded in a similar rationale. “Alternative treatments have not been found to work or have been found not to work” is often followed by by remarks implying that all treatments that work have already been assimilated into mainstream medicine. This is not actually the case.

    Pharmaceutical companies are constantly searching for botanical medicines many of them obscure folk remedies, analyzing and identifying effective components with the intention of patenting an analog of the compound and selling it for a huge profit.

  13. Mike M. says:

    Isn’t it clear what’s happening here? The botanical entity, the raw plant, is declared “bullshit”, “nonsense”, alternative “non-medicine”. But the patentable and marketable pill derived from this plant magically becomes “Real Medicine” once it can be controlled and profited from. If you grow your own medicine in your backyard, then you’ve taken the drug companies and the insurance companies and the government out of the picture, and they don’t like that.
    The shaman working in the Amazon is dismissed as a savage witch doctor (even though he/she may be successfully healing sick villagers for years) mainly because there is no controlled oversight and monetary profit, but the University educated MDs and pharmaceutical Reps are blessed with legitimacy (in our culture) mainly because they are part of The System and can generate clear corporate Profit. Watch what happens when any licensed medical doctor goes “off the map” and suggests plant cures and “alternative therapies” (see Andrew Weil, M.D., career of). Mockery, ridicule, and contempt are guaranteed side effects.
    Wild, untamed Nature is spooky to most mainstream doctors, scientists and other “civilized” folk. Only with control and profit comes their “understanding.”

    • Erich Vieth says:

      There certainly seem to be prescription drug equivalents to most street drugs. And somehow, it’s morally repugnant to use marijuana, yet morally neutral to take Xanax or Prozac. The power of advertising or, perhaps it’s that doctors serve as authority figures, making everything OK.

    • Dan Klarmann says:

      Here’s the Far Left Side’s take on Illegal Plants as the origin of sin.

      Meanwhile, “Big Pharma” is doing its best to identify the active ingredients from pharmacologically useful plants in order to synthesize and sell them.
      But there is no prohibition against harvesting and extracting your own willow bark, as opposed to paying for aspirin.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      If corporations had their way, they would confiscate all of the oxygen on the planet and force us to buy it from them. That is the modern version of the “free” market.

  14. Jim Razinha says:

    Mike M., you might have heard of this: LSD as a cure for alcoholism.

  15. Mike M. says:

    Jim: Thanks for that link. Yes, I think the tryptamine psychedelics are powerful medicines and great teachers, standing ready to offer human benefits beyond what you can imagine and may believe. Nature loves courage, and rewards accordingly. Astonishing boons await those who can summon up the raw courage to explore this territory. But certainly don’t take my word for it- the experience tells the tale.

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