Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Millions of people worldwide swear by such therapies as acupuncture, herbal cures, and homeopathic remedies. Indeed, complementary and alternative medicine is embraced by a broad spectrum of society, from ordinary people, to scientists and physicians, to celebrities such as Prince Charles and Oprah Winfrey. In the tradition of Michael Shermers Why People Believe Weird Things and Robert Parks's Voodoo Science, Barker Bausell provides an engaging look at the scientific evidence for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and at the logical, psychological, and physiological pitfalls that lead otherwise intelligent people--including researchers, physicians, and therapists--to endorse these cures. The books ultimate goal is to reveal not whether these therapies work--as Bausell explains, most do work, although weakly and temporarily--but whether they work for the reasons their proponents believe. Indeed, as Bausell reveals, it is the placebo effect that accounts for most of the positive results. He explores this remarkable phenomenon--the biological and chemical evidence for the placebo effect, how it works in the body, and why research on any therapy that does not factor in the placebo effect will inevitably produce false results. By contrast, as Bausell shows in an impressive survey of research from high-quality scientific journals and systematic reviews, studies employing credible placebo controls do not indicate positive effects for CAM therapies over and above those attributable to random chance. Here is not only an entertaining critique of the strangely zealous world of CAM belief and practice, but it also a first-rate introduction to how to correctly interpret scientific research of any sort. Readers will come away with a solid understanding of good vs. bad research practice and a healthy skepticism of claims about the latest miracle cure, be it St. John's Wort for depression or acupuncture for chronic pain.
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Having read a number of books, and some of the medical literature, on the subjects that the author addresses, I appreciate this insider's point of view. Having spent years studying alternative medicine, I can fully understand the author's view of that topic, and of its adherents; this is no made-up sermon by an out-of-touch academic in an ivory tower somewhere. Being an expert in the field of biostatistics, and given his history studying the actual evidence, the author seems to be in a good position to deliver a wealth of information on a subject that interests many people (and takes a great deal of their money).
The book may be a bit dry, but this is the price of being highly informative. The author is careful to lay out well-crafted arguments, which provide substance for any serious person to examine. His arguments avoid the fallacies that one so often finds in the area of alternative medicine, such as adherence to some authority figure (who may be an ignoramus or a fraud), appeals to ignorance of a subject, or the effect of going along with the crowd, among others. Many believers in his topic of choice will simply attack the author himself, but then those people don't have to be taken seriously, as attacking the person does nothing to invalidate his points.
Overall, this is an exceptional read. One that makes me want to try out some of Mr. Bausell's other books.
Ugh, this book is the answer to my every complaint about "too much anecdote". I find Bausell's points compelling, interesting, well thought-out and convincing, but his writing is both heavy-handed and ardurous to work through. More anecdote, please! There's easier and more interesting places to get the same kind of information, but Bausell packs it all into a dense book - to his credit and his detriment. 5/5 for the science, 3/5 for the style.
The Rise of Complementary and Alternative Therapies
A Brief History of Placebos
Natural Impediments to Making Valid Inferences
Impediments That Prevent Physicians and Therapists from Making Valid Inferences
Impediments That Prevent Poorly Trained Scientists from Making Valid Inferences
Why Randomized Placebo Control Groups Are Necessary in CAM Research
Judging the Credibility and Plausibility of Scientific Evidence
Some Personal Research Involving Acupuncture
How We Know That the Placebo Effect Exists