Book Review - A Consumers Guide to Alternative Medicine

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1999, 217-219

A Consumer’s Guide to “Alternative Medicine”: A Close Look at Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Faith-Healing, and Other Unconventional Treatments. 

Ken Butler. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1992, paperback, 299 pages.

Reviewed by Frank MacHovec, PhD

Butler holds the copyright to this book and is listed as “the author,” but Stephen Barrett is listed as “the editor.” Butler, who has a Master’s degree in nutrition, is founder and past president of the Quackery Action Council. Barrett, a psychiatrist, edits the Nutrition Forum Newsletter. The book suggests that “the second oldest profession” is “quackery” in the form of health and nutrition fraud. Each of the seven chapters is a scathing attack on a great variety of popular but ineffective or unproven alternatives to formal medical practice and good nutrition. The eleven-page 2-column index is well done and useful to quick reference to specific “alternative treatments.” “Alternatives” is deliberately in quotes because “they are not true alternatives” (p. 2).

Chapter 1 goes into considerable detail on popular diet fads. “Large pharmaceutical companies, publishing conglomerates, and armies of pseudonutritionists” mislead the public “while real nutritionists often are ignored” (p. 4). There are also many “self-anointed experts” with “phony credentials” and “teflon talk show stars” who promote bizarre theories with “irrational food choices” and “unnecessary supplements” (p. 4). There are oversimplified, sensationalistic claims with little or no hard evidence. Specific diets are spotlighted, such as Abravanel’s body type, which “merely adds popular psychology and mystical appetite control methods to body type nonsense" (p. 6). Other popular diet movements get the same scrutiny, with words of caution that following any extreme diet can, ironically, result in nutritional deficiencies (p. 26).

Chapter 2 lists “experts" to beware of, ”experts" whose expertise is often “self-proclaimed” and who espouse “unsupported claims, distortion, self-serving propaganda,” with ideas or products often impractical and expensive and which may, in fact, be anti-therapeutic. Eleven such “experts” are named, with reasons to question their pronouncements and products.

Chapter 3 attacks chiropractic as “a century-old philosophy for which there has never been any evidence or theoretical support and which has been disproved beyond a reasonable doubt” (p. 64). According to Butler, chiropractic is “more religion than science” with x-rays the “chiropractic sacrament” (p. 70). It quotes Consumer Reports’ description of it as being “at war with science.” The “underlying theory has been thoroughly discredited” (p. 63) and chiropractors' success in obtaining formal licensing as independent health practitioners and insurance coverage has been the result of “intense lobbying” (p. 64). This has opened the door for similar efforts by naturopaths, homeopaths, acupuncturists, and the like, which “may lead to a new Dark Age in which the legal stature of cultists is equal to scientific practitioners" (p. 64). The chapter ends with a criticism of medical doctors who refer to chiropractors and urges the medical profession to be more forthright individually and in public statements about chiropractic.

Chapter 4 takes on acupuncture, acupressure, Chopra’s ayurvedic medicine, Christian Science, evangelical healing, psychic diagnosis and healing, homeopathy, and naturopathy. Because there are so many alternative treatments in this chapter, analysis of each is more limited than the whole chapter space given chiropractic. This is unfortunate because health practitioners in mainstream professions, such as medicine and psychology, use some of the treatments. For example, medical doctors practice acupuncture and acupressure. Deepak Chopra, a leading proponent of ayurvedic medicine, is a physician. Still, a close, critical look at any treatment is a requirement of the scientific method; it can yield useful improvements as well. Butler suggests that the effectiveness of acupuncture and acupressure may be due to involvement with nerve-muscle junctions rather than mystical meridians, and also to placebo effect. He refers to Ayurvedic medicine as a form of Hindu folk medicine. Many cults focus on one or more aspects of a major world religion, usually far removed in time and place, and use it to attract and recruit followers. Butler refers to these esoteric health movements as “healing cults” (p. 142). He is critical of Christian Science because its followers are “rarely held accountable…even when death results from their medical neglect” (p. 94). As for evangelical healers, too many “collect money and make promises with virtually no legal restraint” (p. 94).

Chapter 5 is an encyclopedic listing of popular alternative treatments too numerous to list here, from aromatherapy to yeast therapy. As in Chapter 4, toes of several mainstream, accredited practitioners are stepped on, and hard! For example, the Simontons, a husband-wife team of oncologists, contend that individualized mental imagery, by meditation or hypnosis, changes the white cell count in terminally ill cancer patients. Those who used the method lived longer than those who didn’t. Their research was scientific and ethical. Of course, it is also true that, as Butler points out, “cancer quackery is among the most widespread and lucrative types of quackery” and “among the most despicable” (p. 148). But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Therapeutic touch can be misused in bizarre massage and other ineffectual techniques; but there is abundant evidence of a strong positive correlation between touch and well being in newborns and children going back to the work of Spitz in the 1930s (marasmus and touch hunger). Butler’s tendency to shoot from the hip shows in this chapter.

Chapter 6 scrutinizes the media, from print and visual news and commercials to entertainers (Michael Jackson) and talk shows (Donahue, Geraldo, Friedman, King, Oprah). As for positives, Inside Edition gets high marks, except for its believer slant on UFOs. ABC-TV’s John Stossel gets an approving nod for his exposes of quackery, as do Drs. Bob Arnot, Timothy Johnson, and Art Ulene on their reporting of medical issues and news, though “they rarely discuss fringe medicine” (p. 252). Dr. Dean Edell is touted as one who “addresses controversial issues frequently and pulls no punches when it comes to quackery” (p. 253).

Chapter 7, How to Fight Back, shifts into a positive mode and describes how consumers can assert their rights and help establish and maintain higher health standards. The decline of smoking and changed public attitude toward shows how a long-standing negative can be transformed positively. To become more health-conscious the public needs to “ignore nonsense,” be more skeptical, become more active as citizens and professionals, and demand more objective media writing and reporting and tighter accreditation and licensing.

Summing up, this book covers an incredibly vast area and does so clearly and concisely. Though its anger sometimes colors treatments with some merit, it is an excellent overview of alternative health movements with more information then you will find in another single volume. Recommended.