Trick or Treatment
I finished this book on the same day that the Point of Inquiry podcast interview with author Simon Singh.
The first nugget in this book is the discussion of science, evidence, double-blind testing, and historical accounts of how medical science has moved forward, ranging from the story of how George Washington was one in a long line of people killed by excessive blood-letting, Florence Nightgale’s work on improving sanitation in hospitals, and Dr. John Snow’s tracking of the cholera epidemic in Victorian London. They then explain the placebo effect, how it works on tested medicines such as aspirin, and how it works with tested but ineffective remedies.
The authors also set about explaining the history of several alternate treatments (homeopathy, chiropractic, herbal remedies), how clinical trials have been conducted, and what the outcome has been. If you expect a book thoroughly dismissing every type of alternative treatment, you will be disappointed, but neither will you find unqualified support. In general, they report several herbal remedies that have been successfully tested (but warn of both unknown efficacies, dangerous side effects, and high costs); that some chiropractic seems to help minor back pain (but you can also suffer severe injury from neck manipulations); and that acupuncture has limited effect in minor pain (but is largely placebo, and the films of Chinese doctors doing open-heart surgery on ‘anesthetized’ patients are hoaxes).
Two particular parts I enjoyed reading for new information: First, the history about acupuncture having been largely discarded in China until Mao pushed traditional Chinese treatments both from a standpoint of national pride as well as a way to cut health care costs. Second, I appreciated the story about Randi’s involvement with investigating Jacques Benveniste’s Nature paper claiming prove of the efficacy of a particular homeopathic treatment.
My opinion is that the authors did a thorough investigation of the evidence upholding alternative treatment therapies, researched the history, provided documentation supporting their claims, discuss enough science so that the casual reader will understand the concept of evidence-based medicine, and were fair and unbiased in their conclusions.