Respectful Insolence

When “Western” woo invades the East

In case you hadn’t guessed, because of the holiday weekend, blogging’s been rather slow. This is in general a good thing, a chance to rest and rethink, but occasionally, even while chilling out, I see things that I can’t resist mentioning briefly. Things like this.

If there’s one thing about “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) that has always puzzled me, it’s that, at least here in the “West,” there seems to be an inordinate fascination with ancient “Eastern” medical systems. These include, of course, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Indian Ayruvedic medicine, both of which are somehow viewed as “superior” to “Western” reductionistic medicine. Of course, some things that are often lumped together with TCM (for instance, reiki) are neither Chinese (reiki was invented by a Japanese man) nor ancient or traditional (although it’s existed for centuries, acupuncture as we know now it evolved into its present form mostly in the 20th century, and reiki was first publicized in 1922). Be that as it may, this fetishism of all things “Eastern” by many in the CAM movement leads me to considerable amusement when I see a story like this one, which somehow I missed when it first appeared about a week ago, entitled Japan’s medical authorities slam ‘absurd’ homeopathy:

The physician to Japanese Emperor Akihito and top scientists have slammed homeopathy as an “absurd” medicine, urging health workers to stay clear of the alternative treatment as it grows in popularity.

“I cannot help but feel strong bewilderment” over the recent rise in homeopathy’s use as a treatment in Japan, said Ichiro Kanazawa, who chairs the prestigious Science Council of Japan.

“The reason is that it ignores science,” Kanazawa, who is also the medical supervisor for Japan’s Imperial Household Agency, said in a statement.

The controversy has been fuelled by reports that a two-month-old baby girl died last year of a cerebral haemorrhage in Japan after she was given a homeopathic remedy instead of the normal treatment of vitamin K.

Ichiro Kanazawa is, of course, correct. He’s making exactly the same arguments about homeopathy that we in the “West” have been making for two centuries because, well, these arguments are valid no matter whether they come from the East or the West. After all, there is no “Eastern” or “Western” science. There is only science.

Japanese homeopaths responded in much the same brain dead way that “Western” homeopaths respond when science pushes back:

The Japan Homeopathic Medical Association, grouping more than 500 occupational homeopaths, launched a counter-offensive by citing studies on the medicine’s positive effects.

“The stance of judging that it has no effect because it cannot be explained by conventional theories is unscientific and we are taken aback,” the association said in an email message to AFP.

Ah, yes, the “our woo can’t be studied by science” argument beloved of quacks everywhere. I don’t know whether it’s reassuring or depressing to see that this argument apparently crosses many cultural boundaries. European or American, Chinese or Japanese, African or Indian, it doesn’t matter. Whenever a woo-meister is challenged with science, he will often retreat to the claim that “science can’t study my therapy.”

So let me see. Here we have an ancient Western medical system that isn’t really so ancient (homeopathy, which was invented by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700s/early 1800s) invading a modern Eastern nation that is highly technically advanced. One thing I will say, though. The Japanese have us beaten in one area. At least government officials, the Japan Medical Association, and the Japanese Association of Medical Sciences are all willing to speak out unequivocally and state that homeopathy is unscientific quackery. Would that our “Western” medical organizations had the intestinal fortitude to speak out so plainly and forthrightly.

In the meantime, given how prescientific “Eastern” medicine is invading “Western” countries in the form of TCM and Ayruvedic medicine, one wonders if perhaps more ancient “Western” medicine will be invading the East. After all, I can see how balancing the four humors would fit in quite nicely with trying to unblock the flow of qi.

Comments

  1. #1 DVMKurmes
    September 5, 2010

    I think the exotic appeals to people. As a resident of Arizona, not too far from the Hopi mesas, I found Dr. Rachie’s discussion of “Hopi ear candles” very amusing. Apparently promoters of ear candles in Europe and Australia used some pictures from a mural painted at the Grand Canyon in the 1930′s to claim that the Hopi had been using ear candles for centuries. Of course, neither the Hopi or anyone else in the area had heard of it-just another way charlatans promote their product. Maybe we should call it the “appeal to the exotic”.

  2. #2 Denice Walter
    September 5, 2010

    It’s easier to fantasize about things that are less familiar ( e.g. Tokyo youth assimilating rockabilly fashion) so this would be exceedingly apropo in woo. Concerning the “allure of the exotic West”, as one who often shops in Japenese or Korean supermarkets and shopping malls ( yes, we have them!),and Chinese shops in NYC, there already *is* western woo : magnet woo, immunity/ workout enhancing necklaces ( they look vaguely like ’8o’s club fashion ), western herbalism ( ” diet ballerina slim tea”), magic “green” powders, and vitamin megadoses. To complete the through-the-looking-glass woo-reciprocity : Mike Adams’ NaturalNews store was hawking “deer antler velvet” at boutique prices.

  3. #3 Mattand
    September 5, 2010

    “The stance of judging that it has no effect because it cannot be explained by conventional theories is unscientific and we are taken aback,” the association said in an email message to AFP.

    How do you say “special pleading” in Japanese?

  4. #4 Standford
    September 5, 2010

    These Japaneses seem already that him they know all, I believe that they have to make the studies adequate because they do not have to make experiments, as he indicates in one I constitute that me they recommended in findrxonline they can be damaging totally, we hope them to manage to develop some better alternative.

  5. #5 beebeeo
    September 5, 2010

    Hi Orac
    You mention returning to balancing the four humors as if it was a joke and far from reality. Unfortunately it isn’t. You might not have heard of Unani medicine which is well known in some asian countries and is slowly growing in europe too. In India it is even recognized by the government.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unani

  6. #6 Pareidolius
    September 5, 2010

    “The stance of judging that it has no effect because it cannot be explained by conventional theories is unscientific and we are taken aback,”

    If only the Imperial Household had responded with: We don’t judge that it has no effect because it can’t be explained, we judge that it has no effect because it has no effect.

  7. #7 Pareidolius
    September 5, 2010

    Mattand, that would be 手前勝手な議論.

  8. #8 Sastra
    September 5, 2010

    The Japan Homeopathic Medical Association is not claiming that their woo “can’t be studied by science.” Look again: they’re citing “studies on the medicine’s positive effects.” They think it’s been adequately tested and has passed with flying colors, same as mainstream medicine. What they’re claiming is that their woo can’t be explained by science. It doesn’t fit into the materialist paradigm.

    Generally speaking, pseudoscientists don’t spit on science itself unless they think they have to. And then, when the critic leaves the room, they’re right back to insisting that modern science supports their modality. To them, there is no science — there are “sciences” which can all say different things, but still be considered science. Sort of like religion.

  9. #9 C Jumper
    September 5, 2010

    It parallels belief in “psychic phenomena.” Once rational thinking is overthrown for magical thinking, there’s no problem believing in telepathy, ghosts, homeopathy, high colonics, copper bracelets, whatever.

    Believers must be getting something out of it, but I can’t guess what. Nor would I try. I would have to conduct a survey to find out.

  10. #10 Finnbar Saunders
    September 5, 2010

    “Hi Orac
    You mention returning to balancing the four humors as if it was a joke and far from reality. Unfortunately it isn’t. You might not have heard of Unani medicine which is well known in some asian countries and is slowly growing in europe too. In India it is even recognized by the government.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unani

    So according to Wikipedia when they qualify from their colleges they are officially BUMS??

    Fnarr, fnarr. Fnarr.

    Finnbar Saunders

    [Well if you don't laugh, you'd have to cry!]

  11. #11 Science Mom
    September 5, 2010

    You might not have heard of Unani medicine which is well known in some asian countries and is slowly growing in europe too. In India it is even recognized by the government.

    @ beebeeo, ‘well-known’ and effective are not always mutual. Using government acceptance of woo is not a very good metric for efficacy, see U.K.’s NHS and homeopathy. Medicine should be moving forward, not backward.

  12. #12 Matthew Cline
    September 5, 2010

    One thing I will say, though. The Japanese have us beaten in one area. At least government officials, the Japan Medical Association, and the Japanese Association of Medical Sciences are all willing to speak out unequivocally and state that homeopathy is unscientific quackery. Would that our “Western” medical organizations had the intestinal fortitude to speak out so plainly and forthrightly.

    I’m really, really curious as to why that is.

  13. #13 dgerard
    September 5, 2010

    It’s called foreign branding. “Traditional Chinese Medicine” is a Western bundle of woo sold as a package, and some elements are Chinese, traditional and were used as medicine.

  14. #14 Succotash
    September 5, 2010

    “I think the exotic appeals to people”

    Yes, sick people aren’t really interested in effective treatments and cures, they are just easily swayed by notions of exotic potions from far away places. Give me a break. Show me someone that goes to a homeopath, and I’ll show you a former frustrated patient of western medicine whose symptoms were pooh-poohed, offered SSRIs and sent home having been told to live with their illness or worse, provided expensive and ineffective treatments just because they have the insurance to pay for it. If western medical doctors are wondering why many patients are starting to seek care elsewhere (woo or not), you needn’t make up these fanciful rationalizations. You really need to look at the care provided to patients that gave up on insurance-based medicine, and are instead willing, at their own expense no less, to take their chances with other more dubious forms of health care.

  15. #15 Chris
    September 5, 2010

    Succotash:

    Show me someone that goes to a homeopath, and I’ll show you a former frustrated patient of western medicine whose symptoms were pooh-poohed, offered SSRIs and sent home having been told to live with their illness or worse, provided expensive and ineffective treatments just because they have the insurance to pay for it.

    Would that also include Penelope Dingle?

    As far as the rest of your rant, do you think that it is different in countries with public health systems like Australia and the UK? What about countries at the other extreme like Haiti?

    Actually, I am not sure you read anything Orac wrote above.

    Also, in what way is homeopathy not “western”? Did Germany move out of Europe on your map?

  16. #16 gwen
    September 5, 2010

    @Succotash; did you somehow miss the part about the newborn’s death because the family choose homeopathy over well proved and effective Vitamin K?

  17. #17 DLC
    September 5, 2010

    Insanely stupid woo is insanely stupid.

  18. #18 Militant Agnostic
    September 5, 2010

    Would that our “Western” medical organizations had the intestinal fortitude to speak out so plainly and forthrightly.

    Matthew Cline @11

    I’m really, really curious as to why that is.

    I think it may be in part because Emperor Akihito is an amateur scientist – sort of the opposite of Prince Charles.

    From Wikipedia

    In extension of his father’s interest in marine biology, the Emperor is a published ichthyological researcher, and has specialized studies within the taxonomy of the family Gobiidae. He has written papers for publication in Japanese and English scholarly journals, namely Gene and the Japanese Journal of Ichthyology.

    He has also written papers about Scientific History in Japan during the Edo and Meiji Eras, which were published in the scientific journals Science] and Nature. In 2005, a newly described goby was named Exyrias akihito in his honour.

  19. #19 Chris
    September 5, 2010

    Cool! I should read up on the emperor a bit.

  20. #20 Travis
    September 6, 2010

    That is very interesting information about Akihito. I have an interest in Japan so it is neat, but also an interest in the history of science. I have some reading to do me thinks.

  21. #21 beebeeo
    September 6, 2010

    @Science Mom
    I hope my previous post didn’t sound like an endorsement. It might not have been clear enough. I said: “unfortunately it isn’t”. That implies I am concerned about it. I’ll keep working on my communication through written language skills.

  22. #22 Mojo
    September 6, 2010

    Never mind “Unani”, which is basically an adaptation of the now abandoned Hippocratic/Galenic medicine that Hahnemann derided as “allopathy” back in the early 19th century, how about Ayurveda, which also relies on the concept of humours (although it only has three and calls them “doshas”)? And what are “yin” and “yang” if not humours to be balanced?

  23. #23 A. Nuran
    September 6, 2010

    Mojo writes:
    how about Ayurveda, which also relies on the concept of humours (although it only has three and calls them “doshas”)? And what are “yin” and “yang” if not humours to be balanced?

    No. Wrong. Bullshit.

    The Doshas are note the Western Humours. And “yin and yang” are not related to the Western Four Element theory either. If you knew anything about the woo you are spouting you would know this. And you would know that TCM recognizes five elements- fire, earth, water, metal and wood.

  24. #24 Tracy W
    September 6, 2010

    Succotash, I’m puzzled by your logic as to what can be done by scientific medicine for those patients with problems that can’t yet be cured (apart from carrying out research in the hope of finding a future cure). You say that patients sent home told to live with their illnesses tend to look for alternatives, and patients sent on expensive and ineffective treatments tend to look for alternatives. This leaves the logical third option of sending patients off for cheap and ineffective treatments, but this would be sending them off for the cheaper forms of woo, which doesn’t exactly alter the problem. What other options does scientific medicine have for someone who hasn’t been treated?

    And do you have any ideas about how the stigma against drugs to treat mental problems can be done away with? That the brain is a physical organ that can go wrong seems obvious to me, but I agree that many people feel they should struggle through their health problems without the use of drugs.

  25. #25 christophe-thill.myopenid.com
    September 6, 2010

    Western medicine? Of course, we all know it’s no good! Haven’t we seen the movies? The doc makes you drunk on bad whisky, and gives you a leather belt to bite on. Then he extracts the bullet with a pair of pincers dipped in the same whisky, and cauterizes the wound with a red iron. Don’t tell me about it!

  26. #26 Rorie
    September 6, 2010

    Somehow, this isn’t that surprising.

    I’d be amused by this, were lives not at risk.

  27. #27 Purenoiz
    September 6, 2010

    Succotash is correct.

    There are people, not all of them, but there are people who I have met who are frustrated by the medical community. As such they turn to non-medical ways (sometimes woo, sometimes physical therapy, nutrition etc). I’ve worked with such people pretty much everyday for the last 7 years. This isn’t to say that their reaction to their frustrating experiences is correct, but rather they do have an experience with an MD that is either directly disturbing (bad bedside manners) or vicariously disturbing (i.e. my grandfather had gauze left in him after surgery, which went septic….therefore I will never).

    Now there is another group that is raised with the belief to distrust all things “establishment”. Whether it be out of paranoia, religious conviction, individuals from this group tend to be pretty close minded, which I guess is their right.

    My personal experience with several Dr’s has been pretty much dismal, and yet I have had good encounters as well. Guess which ones stick in my mind.. The one who left me sitting in the examination room for an hour and a half, the other one thinking out loud said well either that is skin cancer or something benign as he shuffled his fat ass out the room (my grandmother had a lesion removed from her face, and this was back when a cancer diagnosis would have screwed me insurance wise for the rest of my life), or the last Dr I saw who was openly contemptuous of my wound that I got from washing dishes. The key thing I took away from all these experiences is not that “western” medicine is bad, yet rather those guys sucked as caregivers. They might prescribe good treatments, but man their customer service skills were awful.

    If ALL MD’s were aware that, yes all, not just a few bright stars like the one who treated my mother when she had a heart attack scare, but all of them learned & practiced excellent customer/patient service it would derail the first groups complaints.

    Study finds gap between practice, attitudes toward medical errors

    I’m not attacking science based medicine, rather one way to weaken woo, is to actually have the number of errors decrease. Reports in USA today about surgical mistakes takes a psychological toll on people, and the charlatans exploit such weaknesses.

  28. #28 Pablo
    September 6, 2010

    There are people, not all of them, but there are people who I have met who are frustrated by the medical community. As such they turn to non-medical ways (sometimes woo, sometimes physical therapy, nutrition etc). I’ve worked with such people pretty much everyday for the last 7 years. This isn’t to say that their reaction to their frustrating experiences is correct, but rather they do have an experience with an MD that is either directly disturbing (bad bedside manners) or vicariously disturbing (i.e. my grandfather had gauze left in him after surgery, which went septic….therefore I will never).

    I’ve talked about this before. People in this state are so desperate that they’d rather listen to someone who will lie to them than to someone who tells them the truth. When a doctor tells them, “This is a tough situation, and we have things to try, but we can’t promise anything,” it can feel hopeless. Meanwhile, Joe Quackery is telling them, “I can cure you, you just have to believe!” No big surprise when they fall for the lies…

    Suzanne Sommers said it clearly. “Western doctors will not tell you they can cure you.” That’s true, and the reason why is, because they are honest about it. Meanwhile, all the scam artists in her book have no problem promising miraculous cures, despite the fact that they don’t do a lick, at best. They will lie straight out.

  29. #29 Mojo
    September 6, 2010

    @A. Nuran

    I didn’t say they were identical with the Western humours. What I was pointing out was that the systems use similar concepts of “balance” of whatever entities they hypothesize.

  30. #30 Chip
    September 6, 2010

    A recent argument with a local chap who is seriously into dowsing ended when he stated: “That’s the trouble with you skeptics. Always wanting to do a scientific test for dowsing. You can’t use science to show that dowsing really works.”

  31. #31 k
    September 6, 2010

    Kanpo (Japanese-style Chinese herbal medicine) is still used quite a bit. I’ve been in a couple of kampo shops out of idle curiosity, no way in hell I’d use it though. AFAIK, Japanese physicians do not prescribe kampo. (They do, however, prescribe and dispense a lot of random, unlabeled Rx stuff – boosts income due to low office visit rates.) Supplements are hellishly expensive compared to the US. Not sure why, but one factor could be the relatively low number of outlets. You can buy DHC supplements and cosmetics at 7-11, but most drug stores stock few supplements. I did find a real woo-meister shop in the underground mall beneath Hanshin Umeda station, homeopathy and all. I’ll see if I can find the literature. I suspect it would make interesting reading.

  32. #32 Bruce Gorton
    September 7, 2010

    After all, I can see how balancing the four humors would fit in quite nicely with trying to unblock the flow of qi.

    Isn’t that Johrei?

  33. #33 Succotash
    September 8, 2010

    “People in this state are so desperate that they’d rather listen to someone who will lie to them than to someone who tells them the truth. When a doctor tells them, “This is a tough situation, and we have things to try, but we can’t promise anything,” it can feel hopeless. Meanwhile, Joe Quackery is telling them, “I can cure you, you just have to believe!” No big surprise when they fall for the lies…”

    That isn’t what’s happening in the majority of cases. You seem to have a very dim view of the average person’s innate intelligence and this is likely what prevents you from listening. If anyone told me “I can cure you, you just have to believe!” I would run screaming as most people would. People know when something is too good to be true. The more typical scenario would be like the one that likely occurred with Michael Douglas’ situation.

    Douglas: Doctor, I seem to be getting chronic pain in my throat that goes up into my ear. Its been going on for months now. What do you think is wrong?

    Doctor: Hmm, have you been having any stress lately?

    Douglas: Yes my life has been very stressful, but it always has been, so I don’t think its…

    Doctor: Well new studies show that this new SSRI is very effective at relieving stress, which is likely the cause of your symptoms.

    Douglas: I don’t know doc. Do you think it could have anything to do with the fact that I’ve smoked 2 packs a day for 40 years, and drink alcohol like a college kid?

    Doctor: Interesting, I see you are stressed out about your smoking and drinking habits as well. But not to worry, this brand new SSRI is even effective with that kind of stress.

    Douglas: Ok, sounds good, thanks doc. I won’t follow up on it then and just ignore it as best I can. Oddly, my dentist called me and wants to see me about something he found in my throat.

    Doctor: (Chuckling) Those dentists, always looking to encroach on my territory. He probably left his dental mirror in there. Don’t worry you are in good hands. Let me know if this SSRI works for you.

    Apparently these days, even having more money than God doesn’t mean you will get competent, effective, preventative health care from conventional medicine. When a patient in his 60′s, who smokes like a chimney his entire life and repeatedly complains of recent chronic throat and ear pain, doesn’t get cancer added to the differential, your methodology loses a lot of credibility. In this case, seeing a homeopath would have been equally effective.

  34. #34 Chris
    September 8, 2010

    Succotash, the fiction you wrote was not even close to fantasy. If you have actual evidence that someone complaining with symptoms of cancer gets psyche drugs please present it.

    By the way, my father’s mouth cancer was caught by a dentist in the early 1960s. He quit smoking, plus over the years his precancerous lesions have been quickly removed. No doctor has told him to ignore the dentist, and have taken care of him well. He is still alive. And has never been prescribed SSRI.

    Based on my one anecdote, I have decided you are a liar.

  35. #35 Impostor
    September 8, 2010

    Hmm…do you think it’s too late to swap our tree-hugging Prince of Wales for the science-hugging Akihito? As a Cardiffian, I’m happy to start greeting people with ‘konnichiwa’ instead of ‘alright, butty?’

    And, Succotash; does the weight of your own crashing ignorance not give you back trouble? Best see a chiropractor for that, then. :-)

  36. #36 Dave Ruddell
    September 8, 2010

    Do you think Succotash deliberately used the term ‘innate intelligence’ in that post?

  37. #37 Composer99
    September 8, 2010

    I tawt I taw a thaw man.

    I did! I did taw a thaw man!

  38. #38 Mephistopheles O'Brien
    September 8, 2010

    Succotash seems to be retelling the story of Michael Douglas’s oral cancer. He is quite possibly quoting Mr. Douglas verbatim (though I have not found that text exactly, but then I didn’t search all that long). It appears that Mr. Douglas sought advice from several doctors before one found his tumor. It is of course regrettable that his first doctor did not diagnose this immediately; it is fortunate that a doctor eventually did and that his prognosis following chemotherapy and radiation treatment is good.
    It appears that the tumor was neither found nor treated by a homeopath.
    Mr. Douglas is, of course, an entertainer and does not necessarily quote his doctor visits verbatim.

  39. #39 Chris
    September 8, 2010

    Did Mr. Douglas say he was put on SSRIs?

  40. #40 Mephistopheles O'Brien
    September 8, 2010

    Chris – got me. Perhaps Succotash is making it all up – but I have no evidence either way. And I don’t care enough to look it up.

  41. #41 Chris
    September 8, 2010

    Exactly why I asked. I don’t follow people just because they are actors. I had a personal anecdote about the dentist bit, so I figured he was making it up.

  42. #42 Calli Arcale
    September 10, 2010

    Succotash: yes, failure to diagnose early can drive people to alt med. Doctors are human; mistakes will always happen. The goal is always to reduce errors, but it is not possible to bring the number to zero. So I agree this can happen, but it seems naive to believe this explains the popularity of alt med, all by itself. Doctors with crappy bedside manners are another factor; jerks come in all professions, and so it is inevitable that some doctors will be grade-a jerks. And there is the other side of it too — people aren’t just being driven away from medicine, they are being lured to alt med by impossible promises. All three factors are true.

    You say:

    People know when something is too good to be true.

    This is not true. There have been a number of studies looking at the question, but their value is mainly in quantifying the problem, not in showing it exists, because the evidence of the problem is all around us. Just as mistakes will always happen, and jerks will always exist, there will always be people falling for scams, hoaxes, and well-intentioned impossible promises.

    If people always knew when something was too good to be true:

    – Nigerian 419 scammers and other payment forwarding scammers would give up
    – the subprime mortgage bubble would never have blown up in the first place, let alone burst
    – Ponzi schemes would never be successful
    – Las Vegas would be a ghost town
    – the state lotteries would end
    – fly-by-night alleged home improvement contractors would never scam another family
    – the phrase “shell game” would not exist in our lexicon
    – the phrase “confidence trick” would not exist either
    – PT Barnum would never have been so successful

    In short, if you really think people are always able to tell when something is too good to be true, there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you….

  43. #43 Composer99
    September 10, 2010

    Succotash:

    Courtesy of Richard Feynman:
    “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

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