I’ve frequently written that alternative medicine beliefs are much like religion, and often cult-like. When reading about alternative medicine, you’ll often encounter charismatic leaders, faith in the unknowable, and conversion experiences. A fine example of the latter is currently up at the Huffington Post. It’s written by “Dr” Patricia Fitzgerald, HuffPo’s “wellness editor”. Just to remind you of her credentials, she is a “Licensed Acupuncturist, Cert. Clinical Nutritionist, Homeopath, [and] Author.” In other words, she’s not a doctor in any well-recognized sense of the word.
Her reasonably interesting interview is of Susan Smalley (who could rightly be called “Dr”, having a legitimate PhD). Smalley is a former scientist who had a typical conversion experience parroted credulously by Fitzgerald. Unlike actual medical knowledge, Smalley’s knowledge is “received” rather than rationally developed. It is faith, not science. That’s just fine, except that UCLA is actually paying good money to sponsor this new religion under the guise of science.
This new faith is called “Mindful Awareness” or “mindfulness”. It is, “the moment-by-moment process of actively attending to, observing and drawing inferences from what one experiences.” That sentence leaves me feeling unsatisfied—it doesn’t actually say anything. We are all “mindful” in that we, as sentient beings, continuously attend to our environment and draw inferences from experience. When it comes to forming valid hypotheses, these inferences are subjected to rigorous testing so that we do not rely overmuch on our intuition, as it frequently deceives.
Smalley is a geneticist who unfortunately developed malignant melanoma, which she survived thanks to modern medicine. This mortal threat seems to have driven her to this new faith with the zeal of the newly converted. This zeal has obliterated any signs of logical thought. For example:
Patricia, I received a real wake up call when I was diagnosed with an early stage melanoma. It was a big shock. I thought I was going to die. I really reevaluated my life. I realized that I was doing everything Western medicine said keeps you healthy (working out, diet, etc.) and yet I was not preventing myself from getting ‘sick’. The shock of the diagnosis and the fear of death really brought me to a heightened awareness.
One of the core assumptions here is that melanoma can always be prevented; it cannot. Often it can be, by scrupulous attention to sun avoidance. But it’s no guarantee. There are many diseases (most in fact) that are not entirely preventable, and the blame cannot be hung on “Western” medicine, as any geneticist should know. But her conversion was rapid and complete, allowing her to ignore the facts before her eyes:
The medical treatment for my cancer was successful; however, I felt that there was something deeper going on with my overall health.
So, “western” medicine, having failed to help her prevent all disease, did manage to cure her. But that wasn’t enough. There must be some deeper secret, right?
I decided to go back to an East-West doctor that my husband had recommended earlier. I had started going to him 10 years before, but I didn’t believe in him. I just would roll my eyes. I was so skeptical. He would give me suggestions of ways to improve my well being, and I didn’t follow through.
But when the melanoma was diagnosed, I thought, something’s not working. I thought I was doing everything right, but something’s off.
So for the first time, I listened to what he said and started doing everything he recommended. This included massage, acupuncture, taking herbs, different forms of yoga. On my own, I decided I would explore dietary changes, too. I looked into all of the diets and I went really hardcore into macrobiotic. I did all of those things simultaneously. And I started meditating.
Here is that same streak of punitive thinking seen again and again in alternative medicine. If you get sick, it can’t be a simple twist of fate—you must have done something wrong.
No amount of meditation, no amount of prayer, no type of diet will protect you from all disease (Smalley started a strict macrobiotic diet; wasn’t cancer bad enough?)
Human beings love to claim control over the uncontrollable. Sometimes the seemingly uncontrollable isn’t. For example, we can cure many melanomas. But some tragedies are neither predictable nor avoidable. Sometimes lightning strikes you even if you don’t go golfing in a thunderstorm. Life can be terribly cruel and contingent. Still, it’s better than the alternative.
If following health religions makes the world seem less scary to you, fine, but proselytizing is dangerous. Many feel that faith has it’s place, but in medicine, reason must not be surrendered to imagination. Our decisions can kill, no matter how good our intentions.