[back] Damian Thompson

[Medical Propaganda in action: First write the book that will get proper distribution as it sings the right tune.  Then the 3 page spread, along with reviews like this (by Damian Thompson the editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald!), in all the media.  This is an absolute classic, hence its inclusion for posterity, showing the complete control of the media so that you can see laughable reviews like this, not to mention the book itself.]

[Book review] How royalty and junk science made quackery credible

Telegraph Feb 23, 2008

Suckers: how Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All by Rose Shapiro

Damian Thompson

Alternative medicine "makes fools of us all", according to the subtitle of this book. All of us? Even sceptics? Even those of us who run the risk of having our eyes scratched out by a yummy mummy for suggesting ayurvedic bath oil doesn't shrink melanomas? That seems harsh. But, on second thoughts, Rose Shapiro is right. Believers and unbelievers alike make fools of themselves just by using the phrase "alternative medicine".

There is no such thing. Nor is there "complementary" medicine, or "conventional", for that matter. Therapies that yield measurable benefits above and beyond the placebo effect are just medicine. If they don't, they aren't. Shiatsu massage for cancer patients is complementary to medicine, not a variety of it. Likewise, homeopathic vaccines are an alternative to medicine. The one is often beneficial, the other sometimes lethal, but the principle is the same.

See: Allopathy  Terminology

Until 25 years ago, Western society had little difficulty grasping this point. The snake-oil merchants had been forced to pack their suitcases by medical authorities, who pointed to the results of double-blind randomised clinical tests. In 1900, there were 10,000 practising homeopaths in America; by 1975, the number had fallen to fewer than 100. In Britain, the Royal Family's historic enthusiasm for this silliest form of quackery - mocked even when it was invented in the early 19th century -secured its incorporation into the NHS. But most people took the sensible view that if the occupants of Buckingham Palace believed in taking sugar pills instead of medicine, that was their affair.

Now there are tens of thousands of homeopaths in the UK and five universities offer it as a degree course. What has happened? The central doctrine of homeopathy - that substances become more powerful the more they are diluted -remains no more or less credible than the science of reading tea leaves.

The difference is that the West is in the grip of an epidemic of gullibility that has infected every area of life. Knowledge is being driven out by "counterknowledge" -"facts" whose claims, instead of being derived from carefully measured data, are gerrymandered around the sensibilities of the customer.

Shapiro expertly describes the pathology of medical counterknowledge. The youth culture of the 1960s, with its questioning of every authority, weakened society's intellectual immune system. The hippy generation rejected conventional religion in favour of its own quasi-religious teaching that matter and reality are made up of organic or unified wholes greater than the simple sum of their parts.

"This is the root of the now constantly repeated claim that alternative practitioners look at 'the whole person' and that narrow-minded orthodox doctors address only symptoms and specific body parts, as if they existed in isolation," she writes. That rings true: listen carefully, and beneath the soft blather of the "qualified healer" on GMTV you can hear the drone of a student with Dark Side of the Moon balanced on his knees.

No one is greedier than a hippy-turned-entrepreneur, and the narcissism of 1970s idealists has turned into plain old capitalist greed.

The new snake-oil salesmen have erected a vast umbrella of "complementary and alternative medicine" (CAM) under which they shelter from the deluge of data disproving their claims. And they still enjoy the patronage of British royalty.

If there is a single villain to emerge from this marvellous book - the most effective demolition of quackery for years - it is the Prince of Wales. His Foundation for Integrated Health recently received 900,000 of taxpayers' money to initiate the "voluntary self-regulation" of alternative practitioners. Yet such a project is worse than useless, since the foundation does not require evidence of clinical effectiveness.

Moreover, Prince Charles is patron of charities that treat breast cancer sufferers with craniosacral therapy and other techniques that Shapiro describes as "junk science". Prince Charles is not just an enthusiast for quack medicine: he abuses his constitutional position to make it respectable. The thought of him becoming king is worrying, and we must pray that the Queen, despite her use of homeopathic medicine, lives for a very long time.

Damian Thompson