CROWN, JANUARY 2016One weekday morning last summer, I was in the local park. It was a cheerful south London scene, with kids splashing in water fountains and playing soccer on the grass. I perched on the edge of the sandpit with two other mothers, clutching sunscreen and rice cakes as we watched our children build lopsided castles with brightly colored plastic spades.

One of the women, a bright, articulate mom I had just met, was explaining how a homeopathic medicine had cured her of a longstanding, debilitating eczema. “I love homeopathy!” she said. As a scientist, I had to protest. Homeopathy is effectively water (or sugar pills) in fancy bottles—any active substance in these treatments is diluted far beyond the point at which any single molecule of the original could possibly remain. “But there’s nothing in homeopathic remedies,” I said.

My new friend looked at me scornfully. “Nothing...

Stacked up on one side are the proponents of conventional, Western medicine. They are rational, reductionist and rooted in the material world. According to their paradigm, the body is like a machine. For the most part, thoughts, beliefs and emotions don’t feature in treatment for a medical condition. When a machine is broken, you don’t engage it in conversation. Doctors use physical methods—scans, tests, drugs, surgery—to diagnose the problem and fix the broken part.

On the other side is, well, everyone else: followers of ancient, alternative and Eastern medicine. These holistic traditions prioritize the immaterial over the material; people over conditions; subjective experience and beliefs over objective trial results. Rather than prescribing physical drugs, therapists using acupuncture, spiritual healing and reiki claim to harness intangible energy fields. Advocates of homeopathy aren’t concerned that their remedies contain no physical trace of the active ingredient, because they believe that an undetectable memory of the drug somehow remains.

Conventional medicine still has the upper hand in the West, but alternative medicine is embraced by millions of people. In the U.S., the wonders of spiritual healing and reiki are regularly discussed on television news. As many as 38% of adults use some form of complementary of alternative medicine (62% if you include prayer). Each year they spend around $34 billion a year on it, with 354 million visits to alternative medicine practitioners (compared with around 560 million visits to primary care physicians). In London, where I live, mothers commonly put amber necklaces on their babies in their belief that this gemstone has the power to ward off teething pain. Intelligent, educated women reject crucial vaccines for their children and, like my friend, embrace treatments that make no scientific sense.

Not surprisingly, scientists are fighting back. Professional skeptics on both sides of the Atlantic—debunkers like James Randi and Michael Shermer; scientist bloggers like Steven Salzberg and David Gorski; the biologist and author Richard Dawkins—aggressively denounce religion, pseudoscience and especially alternative medicine. The 2009 book Bad Science, in which epidemiologist Ben Goldacre criticizes those who misuse science to make unjustified health claims, has sold more than half a million copies in 22 countries. Even comedians from Tim Minchin to Dara Ó Briain are joining the fight, using their jokes to champion rational thinking and point out the absurdity of treatments like homeopathy.

Their followers are standing up against the tide of irrationality with meetings, articles, protests, and what science journalist Steve Silberman calls “anti-woo lines drawn in the sand,” such as a petition signed by hundreds of U.K. doctors demanding that the National Health Service stop sending money on homeopathic treatments. Clinical trials prove that most alternative remedies work no better than placebos (fake treatments), the skeptics point out—people who use them are being duped. Many argue that these bogus treatments need to be stamped out. There’s nothing we need in health care that we can’t get from conventional, evidence-based cures.

I’m all for defending a rational worldview. I believe passionately in the scientific method: I have a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology, and I spent three years probing the inner workings of cells at a top London hospital. I believe that everything in nature can be studied scientifically if we ask the right questions, and that the medical treatments we put our trust in should be tested in rigorous trials. The skeptics are right: if we abandon science for wishful thinking we might as well be back in the dark ages: drowning witches, bloodletting and praying that God will save us from the plague.

But I’m not sure that simply dismissing alternative medicine is the answer. In my work as a science journalist, I encounter not just those who are cured by modern medicine but those who aren’t: patients whose lives are devastated by gut problems or fatigue yet are dismissed as not having a “real” condition; people suffering from chronic pain or depression, prescribed even-higher doses of drugs that create addiction and side effects but don’t solve the underlying problem; cancer patients who receive rounds of aggressive treatment well past the point at which there’s any reasonable hope of extending their lives.

And I regularly come across scientific findings—sometimes making headlines but often buried in specialist journals—suggesting that intangible, immaterial treatments can have real physical benefits. Patients hypnotized before surgery suffer fewer complications and recover faster. Meditation triggers molecular changes deep inside our cells. And as we’ll see in the first chapter of this book, if a treatment works no better than placebo that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work—simply believing you have received an effective remedy can have a dramatic biological effect. The mothers around me using amber bracelets and homeopathic pills aren’t ignorant, or stupid; they know from experience that these things genuinely help.

Adapted from Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, Copyright © 2016 by Jo Marchant. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on January 19, 2016.

Interested in reading more?

The Scientist ARCHIVES

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?