Anthroposophic medicine at the University of Michigan? Say it ain't so!

I graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in the late 1980s. Back then, U. of M. was really hardcore about science back then, so much so that it was viewed as seriously old-school. No new (at the time) organ system approach for us! During the first two years, ever four weeks, like clockwork, we'd have what was called a concurrent examination, which basically meant that we were tested (with multiple choice tests, of course!) on every subject on the same morning. At the time I was there, the medical curriculum for the first two years had been fairly constant for quite some time, with a heaping helpin' of anatomy, histology, biochemistry, and physiology in the first year and the second year packed full of pharmacology, pathology, and neurosciences. Nowhere to be found in the curriculum was anything resembling "energy medicine" or anything that wasn't science-based!

Of course, back in the 1980s, the infiltration of quackademic medicine into medical schools and academic medical centers hadn't really begun in earnest yet, although the rumblings of what is now called "complementary and alternative medicine" (CAM) and, more frequently these days, "integrative medicine" (IM) were starting to be heard in East Coast and West Coast schools. Even there, though, the incipient CAM movement was viewed as fringe, not worthy of the attention of serious academic physicians. Indeed, in the late 1980s, even at what are now havens of quackademic medicine if someone had suggested that diluting substances until there is nothing left, as in homeopathy, or waving your hands over a patient in order to channel the "universal source" of energy into a patient in order to heal a patient, as in reiki, had any place in scientific medicine, he'd have been laughed out of medical school--and rightly so.

Not so today, unfortunately. Although the problem of infiltration of quackademic medicine into academic medical centers goes way beyond this example, I can point out that faith healing based on Eastern mystical beliefs instead of Christianity is alive and well and ensconced in academic medical centers such as the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Integrative Medicine, where reiki masters are roaming the halls of the University of Maryland R. Adam Cowley Shock Trauma Center and Bonnie Tarantino, a Melchizedek practitioner, holographic sound healer, and an Usui and Karuna Reiki Master holds sway. Meanwhile, all manner of woo, such as acupuncture, the One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy), craniosacral therapy, reiki, and reflexology are offered. Even a hospital where I trained, MetroHealth Medical Center, has succumbed to the temptation to add the quackery that is reiki to its armamentarium. That betrayal of science aside, I had never expected that my old, stodgy, hardcore University of Michigan would ever go woo.

I was wrong.

As I've mentioned before, over the last decade, the University of Michigan Medical School has gotten into alternative medicine, adding IM to its curriculum and even having a fellowship in IM. When I first learned about this, I hoped that it wouldn't go any further than massage, reiki, and acupuncture, the usual "gateway woos" that so many academic medical centers have unfortunately embraced. Unfortuantely, while browsing the blogs last month, I came across reports by P.Z. Myers and Tufted Titmouse, both of which contained a link to the University of Michigan Integrative Medicine (UMIM) resource page. There, I saw something that made me want to claw my eyes out and stomp those suckers flat, much like the scene in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 when The Bride removes Elle Driver's remaining eye and squishes it between her toes in a disgusting close-up. What provoked this revulsion?

The answer: Anthroposophic Medicine.

Yes, right there, on U. of M.'s Integrative Medicine website is anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner's mystical, magical system. Let's look at what UMIM's webpage on anthroposophy says about it:

Anthroposophic medicine views health as a matter of mind-body-spirit balance. It is centered on the idea that humans are not independent organisms but, instead, beings composed of the interactions of physical body, inner life body, soul (mind and emotions), and spiritual ego (self-awareness). Whereas conventional medicine focuses on "fixing" the part of the physical body that is "broken," anthroposophic medicine prescribes treatment for the whole being through conventional methods in combination with holistic methods. As such, anthroposophic medicine integrates theories and practices of modern medicine with alternative, nature-based treatments and a spiritual-scientific understanding of the human being. The practice is based on Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner's concept of anthroposophy, a scientific and philosophical world view that connects the spiritual within the human being to the spiritual in nature, the world and the cosmos.

This is consistent with what the Holistic Health Internet Community says about anthroposophic medicine:

Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) refused to accept the contemporary scientific view of the body as a purely physical entity. From that conviction was born the doctrine of anthroposophy, a word he coined from the Greek words for "man" and "divine wisdom." Steiner believed in the uniqueness of each human being, and contended that health and well-being deteriorated without that belief. Trained as a scientist and a mathematician, he was influenced by Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and founded a school in which his theories became practice.

Anthroposophical medicine determines the nature of illness based on Steiner's principal of polarity. His system attempts to link and harmonize both the upper and lower poles of the body. Good health then depends on a harmonious relationship between the physical, etheric and astral bodies, and the ego. Practitioners are trained as medical doctors and may treat childhood infections, hay fever and asthma, anxiety, depression, cancer, musculoskeletal problems and fatigue.

If twenty years ago someone had told me that one day that not only would my medical alma mater be publishing dreck like this, but that it would have formed an interdisciplinary program devoted to it, I would have told that person he was delusional. If you had told me that anthroposophy would be part of a larger program of woo run by a physician who is described as having "studied herbalism and spiritual healing for 14 years with a Native American Healer" and as having research interests that include the "use of herbs, energy healing, environmental healing, and the therapeutic relationship" or that a physician trained in "functional medicine" would be a big part of a program in anthroposophic medicine there, I wouldn't have believed it. All I can wonder is what Big Bill Kelley, the infamously hardcore scientific chair of the Department of Internal Medicine while I was at Michigan, would think or say if he were still at U. of M. In fact, having read the section on anthroposophy on U. of M.'s website, I wish I were delusional. But I'm not. The section is real, and the medical school from which I graduated has not only started to tolerate such nonsense, but begun to embrace it.

What U. of M. has now seemingly embraced (or at least tolerated), namely anthroposophic medicine, is at the bottom of a lot of quackery and anti-vaccine beliefs. Indeed, outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease have been distressingly common at Waldorf schools, where the educational philosophy is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, which is why they are sometimes called Steiner schools or Steiner-Waldorf schools. Although the European Council for Steiner-Waldorf Education, which represents approximately 700 of the 1000 Waldorf schools world wide, has stated unequivocally that opposition to immunization forms no part of the goals of Waldorf education, Waldorf schools are magnets for parents opposed to vaccination. One example occurred in California in 2008, when there was a measles outbreak at the East Bay Waldorf School in El Sobrante. Given that the UMIM program, although interdisciplinary, boasts heavy involvement of family medicine faculty, I can't imagine the cognitive dissonance that must be going on. After all, many family medicine doctors also take care of children and are responsible for making sure they are properly immunized just as much as any pediatrician.

Anthroposophical medicine is also rooted in prescientific vitalism. Rudolf Steiner, before he came up with the idea of anthroposophy, had led the German section of Theosophy. When he became enamored of his spiritual concept of anthroposophy, Steiner in essence caused a schism. Anthroposophy, it further turns out, is far more a religious and spiritual philosophy than a scientific or medical one. Based on his philosophy, Steiner created Waldorf schools, anthroposophic medicine, and biodynamic farming, a concept so delightfully loopy that I featured it on Your Friday Dose of Woo a few years back. You really should read it, because it has to be seen to be believed. But let's get back to anthroposophic medicine, which is based on the same sort of mystical philosophy that biodynamic farming is. Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst characterize this form of medicine thusly in their book Trick or Treatment?:

Applying his philosophical concepts to health, he [Rudolf Steiner] founded, together with Dr. Ita Wegman, an entirely new school of medicine. It assumes metaphysical relations between planets, metals, and human organs, which provide the basis for therapeutic strategies. Diseases are believed to be related to actions in previous lives; in order to redeem oneself, it may be best to live through them without conventional therapy. Instead, a range of other therapeutic modalities is employed in anthroposophic medicine: herbal extracts, art therapy, massage, exercise therapy, and other unconventional approaches.

Perhaps the most common example of anthroposophic medicine is the use of mistletoe extracts for the treatment of cancer. Perhaps you've heard of Iscador? While Iscador might actually have some activity against, for example, breast cancer, it is not without toxicity, and the evidence for its efficacy in cancer is at best conflicting. Even if Iscador turned out to be an effective treatment for breast cancer, it would be an example of being right for a reason that is spectacularly wrong. That's because Steiner argued that mistletoe is a parasitic plant that eventually kills its host. To him, this represented a striking parallel to malignant tumors, which, like mistletoe, are parasitic entities that eventually kill their hosts. Steiner's conclusion? Because of this resemblance, mistletoe must be an effective treatment for cancer. Readers knowledgeable about homeopathy will immediately recognize that Steiner clearly must have believed in the homeopathic principle of "like cures like." In fact, he even went beyond that to generalize that "a plant is a healing plant when it has a distortion or an abnormality in its physiology and morphology," presumably related to human disease. Indeed, according to Dr. Peter Hindenberger this represents a "modern, scientific reformulation of what, in former times, existed in the 'doctrine of signatures'"; i.e., the belief that God has marked everything he created with a sign (signature) that is an indication of the purpose for which the item was created.

Although you can read more about anthroposophic medicine, either at a Steiner website or the Physician's Association for Anthroposophic Medicine (to get it right from the horse's mouth, so to speak) or over at The Skeptic's Dictionary and Quackwatch, including a description of what being a student at a Waldorf school is like, because this is about UMIM's apparent embrace of anthroposophical medicine, I think that I will close by discussing what UMIM says about it. But, before I do so, let me quote a passage from what PAAM says about it in a PDF booklet. After all, U. of M. includes a link to PAAM on its website, which leads me to assume that the UMIM program in anthroposophic medicine endorses PAAM. So does the fact that PAAM is based in Ann Arbor. But back to the PAAM pamphlet:

Medicine based purely on material science is limited to explaining an illness solely on the basis of the laws of physics and chemistry.

I'm sorry. I can't help but interject here that PAAM says this as though limiting medicine to explaining illness solely on the basis of the laws of physics and chemistry were a bad thing. Personally, though, I'm curious as to how we can explain illness not based on the laws of physics and chemistry. Unfortunately, PAAM is more than happy to tell us how anthroposophic medicine is "more ambitious" than us mere practitioners and proponents of science-based medicine. I suppose it is, casting off, as it does, all those inconvenient laws of physics and chemistry that took hundreds of years to discover and understand:

Anthroposophic medicine is more ambitious. It takes into account additional factors, both general and individual, that may affect the patient's life, mind, and soul, and their physical manifestation: in growth, regeneration, microcirculation, fluid retention in the skin, muscle tone, biorhythms, head distribution, posture, uprightness, gait, mental focus, speech. When illness occurs, examination of the above may reveal deviations, imbalances, and extremes--additional diagnostic parameters that need to be considered when selecting a therapy. Anthroposophic medicine also has a different understanding of the role played by the patient in overcoming illness. The patient is not simply a passive recipient of medical skill, but an equal partner with the doctor. After all, nobody can know the patient better than the patient. During an illness, the patient has the opportunity to recognise the state of imbalance body and soul have reached, to understand this and rectify it. The illness can provide an opportunity to learn new modes of behaviour, to develop further insights, and acquire greater maturity.

And, yes, anthroposophic medicine embraces homeopathy:

In addition, other substances tailored to the patient's unique characteristics are administered. These are frequently homeopathic substances designed to stimulate the organism and its powers of self-healing.

Science-based medicine, anthroposophy clearly is not and never will be. Of course, that's quite obvious from what UMIM itself says about the anthroposophic view of health. According to UMIM, this consists of these tenets, with my comments in brackets after each item:

  • Health involves a dynamic balance and high functioning of all aspects of a person's life. [This is so vague as to be meaningless and all but impossible to argue with, but it's the sort of trope common in alt-med circles.]
  • Illness is the result of disharmony and imbalance amongst the three systems of the body and their related forces and effects. [This sounds very much like attributing disease to imbalances in the four humors. Teach the controversy! about the Four-fold Man!]
  • Illness is a tragedy, but also an opportunity for learning and transformation. [This sounds very much like the quackery that is the German New Medicine and Biologie Totale to me; that is, if you strip away Steiner's belief in reincarnation wherein illness isn't the working through of unrecognized emotional traumas in this life (as German New Medicine teaches) but is rather the working through of issues from previous lives.]
  • The signs and symptoms of an illness are often the body's attempts at healing and, in general, should not be suppressed, but rather, aided, observed and resolved. [More German New Medicine- and Biologie Totale-like gobbledygook. Again, odd how U. of M. leaves out Steiner's belief that these body's attempts at healing are related to past life experiences.]
  • Many illnesses, especially benign ones, should not be artificially prevented, but should be allowed to occur and be treated and healed. The patient thereby gains strength and experience, both biologically and spiritually. [This would appear to be the basis for so many anti-vaccine beliefs that permeate every aspect of anthroposophic medicine and the education taught in Waldorf schools. After all, what is vaccination, but preventing illness? I guess your kids get so much stronger, spiritually and biologically, if you just let them, take their chances with measles, mumps, whooping cough, and Haemophilus influenzae type B. Because, you know, that worked out so well for children in terms of childhood mortality back in the days before vaccines could prevent these diseases. Oh, wait. No it didn't.]
  • True prevention of illnesses involves a healthy lifestyle with positive habits, strengthening the biological, psychological and spiritual aspects of a person, and avoiding the detrimental and illness-producing effects of much of modern civilization. [Do I detect a reference to "toxins" here? I think I do.]

UMIM even goes on to link to a company that produces skin care products and medicines based on Steiner's biodynamic farming (including Iscador and homeopathic remedies), as well as to point out that many anthroposophical remedies can only be administered as an inpatient at a facility like the Rudolf Steiner Health Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, you can find a video about anthroposophic medicine:

Check out the part around 24:25, where a chemist describes how anthroposophic medicines are made, including the part about how he "potentizes" many of them in decimal fractions, just as homeopaths do with their remedies! I'm beginning to believe Tufted Titmouse when she says:

anthroposophy = homeopathy + ghosts.

Obviously adding ghosts to homeopathy does not dilute the stupid in any measurable way.

This chemist's goal is, as he puts it, to "strengthen the vital forces within the living organism while at the same time respecting its natural rhythm." He also heads out to the French border at 4 AM during the summer so that he can harvest Arnica plants at dawn, thus allowing the "morning strength" to be maintained in them. I kid you not. Then, get a load of this description of anthroposophic medicines, right off the U. of M. website:

Many anthroposophic remedies are specially prepared using homeopathic or modern alchemical pharmaceutical processes to naturally stimulate healing processes in the ill person.

Yes, it would appear that alchemy is alive and well at U. of M.!

Fortunately, the Rudolf Steiner Health Center does not appear to be affiliated with the University of Michigan, at least as far as I can tell. Unfortunately, it's still very disturbing that UMIM would recommend such an institution and even more disturbing that "anthroposophic physicians at the University of Michigan" appear to be partnering with the Rudolf Steiner Health Center to research anthroposophic medicine as supportive care for cancer patients.

Personally, I think that Robert Carroll gets it exactly right when he characterizes anthroposophic medicine as being "even more out of touch with modern, science-based medicine than homeopathy." Think about it. Homeopathy is based on just two magical ideas: The Law of Similars and the Law of Infinitesimals, which together can be viewed as an expression of the ancient principles of sympathetic magic. In marked contrast, anthroposophic medicine is based on many ideas with no basis whatsoever in science that can best be described as pure magical thinking--drug-induced, even. Indeed, to me at least, anthroposophic medicine resembles more than anything else naturopathy in that there doesn't appear to be a form of unscientific, prescientific, vitalism-based woo that it doesn't embrace. In fact, anthroposophic medicine appears to go far beyond naturopathy in that respect. It also brings into play a veritable cornucopia of mystical concepts, including the etheric body, the astral body, and the ego. It postulates that the soul, the senses, and the consciousness are beings that have an independent existence outside of the body and further asserts that herbs, essential oils, and movement therapy known as eurythmy can bring these things into harmony and balance with each other and the physical body. Reading about anthroposophy and anthroposophic medicine, I had some serious acid flashbacks to my youth, when I used to be an avid Dungeons & Dragons player. My personal oddities during my high school and college years aside, anthroposophic medicine openly denigrates science-based medicine for only being able to diagnose and treat disease according to its understanding of the laws of physics and chemistry, to which I respond: Upon what else would a physician base his understanding of disease? As Carroll put it:

Steiner approached medicine the same way he approached everything else from astrology to Atlantis to education to farming to metaphysics: He dictated his visions. Why anyone considers him a scientist is a great mystery. His notion of science as involving the explanation of how immaterial entities affect material entities is the very opposite of science.

Indeed, and the medical school from which I graduated over 20 years ago now has a program dedicated to teaching physicians and medical students as fact the medical philosophy of this very man, whose philosophy is not only far more religion and mysticism than science but is indeed antiscience at its very core despite its superficial declaration of allegiance to science. Indeed anthroposophic medicine's assertion of relationships between the various bodies (physical, etheric, etc.) and astronomical bodies is far more akin to astrology than science. Would that it were only homeopathy U. of M. were teaching and practicing!

No doubt the U. of M. faculty and leadership responsible for this travesty will say that they pick and choose only the bits from anthroposophic medicine that are evidence-based and ignore all the woo. Quite frankly, to me anthroposophic medicine is pretty much all woo. Certainly, if there's any science there, I can't find it. Or perhaps they would argue that the anthroposophic medicine program is a tiny part of a vast enterprise of science-based medicine. This is almost certainly true. It's also probably true that relatively few U. of M. faculty even know about the existence of a Steiner-inspired program at their school. To me, however, there is zero place for such religious- and mysticism-inspired nonsense in any reputable medical school, other than as a footnote in courses in the history of medicine. Certainly there is no place for it being taught or practiced as though it had any validity whatsoever anywhere near medical students, residents, or fellows--and especially nowhere near patients.

Finally, knowing that U. of M. is teaching and practicing anthroposophic medicine makes me very irritated whenever I get mail soliciting donations for its medical school. From here on out, I think that, whenever a U. of M. Medical School solicitation arrives in the mail, I'll send it back with a link to this post as the reason why I must insolently decline. I never realized that quackademic medicine could be so quacky or, worse, that it could hit so close to home.

I'll be keeping an eye out at my current institution with renewed vigilance.


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I weep for our university. Back when we were in school, woo was treated as woo.

From here on out, I think that, whenever a U. of M. Medical School solicitation arrives in the mail, I'll send it back with a link to this post as the reason why I must insolently decline. I never realized that quackademic medicine could be so quacky or, worse, that it could hit so close to home.

One of the main reasons I no longer give to the College of Nursing, either. Maybe I should send my solicitation back with that comment rather than just tossing it.

Rather than unlease a stream of invective, punctuated by language unsuited for mixed company:

This irks me in several interrelated ways: first, it is a waste of time, money, personnel, classroom space, computers, and *people's* talents. Medicine is becoming more technologically complex so rather than teaching students to deal with it, let's instead resurrect some medieval or Victorian crap and give credit for the study of rubbish. It's bad enough that those already trained in life saving endeavors like heart surgery or GI transplantation ( Oz and Andy, respectively) fritter themselves away in pursuit of matinee idol-dom while spreading woo like manure: let's get them young.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 21 Mar 2011 #permalink

I continue:

As a stranger in a strange land who surveys the crooked paths of pseudo-science, I hear woo-meisters claim triumphantly that medicine has seen the "error of its ways", "the tide is turning", "there is a pardigm shift", and that they themselves were "ahead of the curve". The "Orthodoxy has failed". They use academia's descent into quackery as proof positive that they are visionaries indeed. Believe me, this sells supplements and increases name recognition.

In harsh reality, money is tight and people get sick. Life is hard. There's no wasting it on vain re-iteration of faery tales.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 21 Mar 2011 #permalink

Re: "indeed [...] anthroposophic medicine resembles more than anything else naturopathy in that there doesn't appear to be a form of unscientific, prescientific, vitalism-based woo that it doesn't embrace."

Indeed, UMIM has an NCNM 'CAM-expert' ND on staff (see ). NCNM particularly of the ND schools, being the mother ship of it all and such, explicitly states vitalism and the science-exterior supernatural survives scientific scrutiny.


In his excellent short piece on antivaccinationists and the Waldorf schools, Arthur Allen observed that "Steiner (who was not a medical doctor) believed that children's spirits benefited from being tempered in the fires of a good inflammation." Indeed, a faith in the curative power of fever seems to be a mainstay of anthroposophical medicine, and Steiner-based clinics tout the benefits of "overheating therapies." I have tried to locate a primary source for this belief among Steiner's writings, most of which can be downloaded as pdfs, but without success so far. As you've noted, Steiner was incredibly prolific, so I probably have not yet dug deep enough.

More generally, what is the most useful thing the scientific community can say about this idea that fever is good for you? It strikes me as potentially very dangerous, but I'm unaware of any relevant clinical reports.

To be clear: The literature abounds with case histories of high fever and its consequences. I'm interested in whether cases have come to light in which anthroposophically inclined parents tolerated or deliberately induced high fevers in their kids, and what happened.

"Many illnesses, especially benign ones, should not be artificially prevented, but should be allowed to occur and be treated and healed. The patient thereby gains strength and experience, both biologically and spiritually."

This part alone makes me livid. Who defines "benign"? And since when is medicine about making patients suffer in order to gain some mysterious, ephemeral "spiritual strength"?

My relatives and I all suffer from illnesses that I'm sure these woo-meisters would see as "benign" and unnecessary to treat via "physics and chemistry" - very mild asthma, insomnia, generalized anxiety, itchy skin, IBS, and so forth. Simply put, my quality of life would be immensely lower if I were not able to take medications for these issues. I would be stuck in bed with chronic bronchitis like my mother, or hiding from the world like my anxious aunt, or always sleep-deprived like my grandmother. There's so much condescension and ignorance in the use of that little word, "benign", that it's difficult to believe that statement was made by anyone in the medical profession.

"Anthroposophic medicine views health as a matter of mind-body-spirit balance. It is centered on the idea that humans are not independent organisms but, instead, beings composed of the interactions of physical body, inner life body, soul (mind and emotions), and spiritual ego (self-awareness)."

Now isn't this helpful -- they provide a woo-to-world translation for those who would otherwise be uncomfortable with all the talk of soul and spirit: people are "composed of the interactions of physical body ... mind and emotions ... and self-awareness." There! Now that ought to get past the critical filters of those nasty skeptics. Hard to quarrel with that, isn't it?

Take what you need, and leave the rest.

Most people, though, are not uncomfortable with talk of soul and spirit. Ask the average person whether they believe that God exists, souls exist, and there's a spiritual dimension to reality and chances are they'll eagerly and enthusiastically agree. Ask them if human beings are "more" than what can be measured in the physical realm and whether there are many miraculous events and things in the world and again you get a sincere, proud acknowledgment that yes indeed, this is true. This is their foundational reality, infused with magic and spirit.

And this is presumably all fine and dandy just as long as people who believe this make sure they keep this 'knowledge' far, far away from science and medicine, which for unknown reasons can't pick up any of this massive, common, completely convincing truth. No overlap between differing truths. Why? Because, that's why. Please.

Compartmentalizing is hard work. It's bound to crack -- and when it does, you get a pseudoscience with all the weight and respect and untouchability given to religion behind it.

I've come up with a formula:

Woo + religion = $35 a month out of your pocket.

As woo and religious ferver increase, monthly out of pocket expenses increase.

I guess $35 is the most amount a sucker will pay a month, unless gullibility levels are expanded. Fear helps...

I hope whatever has infected your hospitals isn't catching on here in Canada.

You guys are screwed...

By janiceclanfield (not verified) on 21 Mar 2011 #permalink

@ M I Dawn: When I attended a university for my BSN, it wasn't affiliated with a school of medicine. We did clinical rotations in most of the area university-affiliated hospitals, one private and one public psych hospital and a semester in a home-care nursing agency.

I just visited my university's school of nursing and the statement from the dean incorporates "holistic nursing" flag there. Most of the courses are listed as "holistic maternal health", "holistic nutrition", "holistic pediatric health", etc. I also checked out each of the nursing faculty professor's "faculty profiles" for any "red flags" professional memberships or journal articles and there were the usual (traditional) affiliations, certifications and published articles.

I next viewed a Catholic university's school of nursing nearby and rather that "holistic nursing", I found "humanistic nursing" (I suppose they ran the two phrases past the diocese and the lesser of the two "evils" was "humanistic nursing".

I was somewhat relieved to check the NCLEX site's licensing test sample questions and nary a mention of "holistic", "humanistic" or other CAM modalities.

janiceclanfield, too late. From the infamous conference that Wakefield was speaking from when he was interviewed by Cooper Anderson on CNN is listed:

Dr. Christopher Shaw is a Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of British Columbia and holds cross appointments with the Department of Experimental Medicine and the Graduate Program in Neuroscience.


Michael Vonn is a lawyer and the Policy Director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, Canadaâs largest and most active civil liberties organization. She has been an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the Faculty of Law and the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, where she teaches civil liberties and information ethics. She is a regular guest instructor for UBCâs College of Health Disciplines Interdisciplinary Elective in HIV/AIDS care.

Oh, and also on that list is the guy who is the subject of this bit of Respectful Insolence!

lilady #11 wrote:

I next viewed a Catholic university's school of nursing nearby and rather that "holistic nursing", I found "humanistic nursing" (I suppose they ran the two phrases past the diocese and the lesser of the two "evils" was "humanistic nursing".

Hm. I've never heard the phrase "humanistic nursing" (or "humanistic medicine") before, so I looked it up. As a secular humanist, my original reaction was that "humanistic" should = "scientific," but I had my doubts.

The wikipedia article is here, and it's a bit hard to say exactly what it means. The description starts out sounding reasonable enough:

"The fundamental principles of humanistic medicine are open communication, mutual respect, and emotional connection between physicians and their patients...

and then there's a lot about giving individual attention and avoiding bureaucratic 'dehumanization' and so forth .. but then they bring in a lot of fluffy talk about the "soul" and seem to imply that extra love has healing properties. Or, maybe they don't.

At any rate, from what little I saw "humanistic" doesn't seem to imply woo -- unlike "holistic," which has now become a sort of code word for alt med. So I'm not sure the terms are interchangeable.

@ Sastra: Thanks for the link to the Wikipedia article. Did you view the first link at the bottom of the article, "The Bramwell Collaboration"? That's where you will find "a lot of fluffy talk about the "soul". A whole lot of woo mixed up with traditional medicine and this group has hijacked "humanism".

Four year university based nursing degree programs requirements include required psychology and sociology classes in addition to science courses as pre-requisites for acceptance into the BSN program. And, beginning with Nursing 101, stresses treating the "whole" person, not just her/his diseased gallbladder.

Finally, a modality to help me with my pesky "head distribution" issues. But seriously, I've been researching 19th century utopian societies (our theme this year) for a mechanical arts event I do creative direction for every September. I'm gonna have to weave in some Anthroposophy 'cause you can't make shit like this up. Dr. Erasmus P. Kitty would strongly disapprove of such nonsense however . . .

By Pareidolius (not verified) on 21 Mar 2011 #permalink

"Never go full Woo!" (I think that was Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder)

By The Blind Watchmaker (not verified) on 26 Mar 2011 #permalink

Hallo there, Its really interesting to follow this blog - just thought I'd bring in another perspective.

One thing that strikes me whilst I read some of the things that people have written is that whether or not one agrees or disagrees with certain alternative therapies, there is overwhelming evidence to show that many people do benefit from them. I suppose you could say that its all a matter of placebo affect but, in my experience, (and I have had Reiki and other therapies)therapy which focuses on the 'whole' person, not just the bit thats sick gives, at least for me, more of a picture of how illness is connected to the 'big picture' of how we live our lives and how illness is also bound up with our emotionsth.

My Father died of skin cancer and I watched over a period of five years how he was given drugs and treatment and then had to have more drugs and treatment to counteract the effects of the original drugs. My Father was extremely stressed, he ran a business and was on the verge of breakdown. I also suspect that trying to pretend there was nothing wrong for the sake of his family also added to strain. I am positive that a lifestyle change was what was really in order. Anyway, I digress, my point is that the respectable (and lets admit - every proffession contains people who are not up to the job, conventional doctors as well as alternative ones)practioners of many alternative therapies can help - essentially, I think, because they see the 'whole' person - body, soul and spirit, or physical, mental and emotional - whichever way we choose to describe these different aspects of our human nature, my experience has been that doctors often look at a problem in isolation, with an assumption that with chemicals it will make it go away. I'm sure this is appropiate in some cases but especially in relation to the evr-growing amount of anti-depressants which are prescribed to people. Depression,(and I speak from experience) I think, is a symptom of our life styles and it is those that could be changed instead of taking drugs to numb the pain.

So, I don't want to slate conventional medicine completely, I fully acknowledge that there have been incredible advances, especially in relation to surgery. But I just want to give my personal opinion that alternative therapies have their place too and at the end of the day it is a matter of personal preference whether you choose to see one or not - surely that is a matter of personal freedom. The freedom to have different ideals and a different way of thinking.

I have also just finished a degree in Steiner Education. Just thought I'd throw that into the mix.

Anyway thanks for an interesting debate


Your point about there being more to treating a person than treating the illness is a good one, and I'm certainly sorry to hear about your father.
I think, though, that you may have missed one of the key points in both the Orac's blog and science based medicine in general. It's not a matter of people disagreeing with certain alternative therapies. The real issue is that there just isn't overwhelming evidence to show that many people do benefit from them - at least, not benefit in a way other than might be achieved by some form of counselling or support.

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 18 Jun 2011 #permalink

Hallo again (yes I must admit I slightly skimmed this blog looking for some kind of interesting quote to put into one of my essays - I will look at it in more detail in a bit)

In regard to the issue of evidence of people benefiting from alternative therapies - perhaps I'm wrong but many of these stem from other cultures who have been using traditional forms of healing for centuries - is all of that wisdom to be denied and called 'quackery' because it doesn't fit into our western material mindset and provide the relevant 'proofs'. Also I have noticed over my lifetime how the general public seem to be taking more and more interest in these alternative ways of thinking (and that doesn't mean its either/or- we can have both!), yoga especially is massive and so is Tai Chi and various forms of meditation. Some open minded doctors (and I have one) even recommend meditation. I cannot help but think that if so many people are interested - if its a load of rubbish then why do these alternatives keep being saught? Because people are stupid? because people are brainwashed?

I am not a doctor, or a scientist, I cannot make unfounded comments about the medical system, I can only really talk about my ideas in relation to my own experience. But I'm inclined to think outside the box and am open to everything - I would rather believe until disproved than not believe until proved. A thought I have been cultivating is that the western scientific paragigm does not seem to believe a thing until it can be experienced with the five senses. Therefore any evidence will only be recognised if it can be detected within this realm. So if you look for how 'the laying on of hands' works - how can you find any evidence of something which operates in a realm outside of those five senses? Could it be (and I know I may be burnt at the stake for this) that there is a realm outside of those five senses. This inevitably leads to a theological debate and I don't want to provoke a lot of neagative "oh she is just a crazy hippy" type comments by that but I do see around me many people searching for something beyond the current materialistic paradigm - people seem to be gradually developing a sense for the shift in consciousness being spurred by ecological and economical imbalance and injustice. Mental health issues are on the rise - so many people seem to rely so heavily on what the media shows them the way they should lead their lives. And medicine fits into this picture because conventional medicine simply does not provide all the answers to the kinds of questions that people are asking - alternative therapies provide some of those answers - don't tell people they're stupid for doing that.

Counselling works on the emotional aspect of the human being - correct me if I am wrong but is 'Salutogenesis' not an accepted term in conventional medicine to describe how someones emotions can affect them physically? And the placebo effect - how can it be possible to physically effect your body by your own beliefs? - does this not point to something which sounds a little like 'magic'? It does not take too much of a stretch to see the connection between emotion and physical illness and many therapies may work on an emotional level but that does not rule out the possibility of physically affecting the body.

Sorry for such a long post - its just such an interesting topic and one which I'm eager to look at things from others perspectives as well as my own.

One more thought - why don't you go and get a session in one of these alternative therapies - just try it for yourself (yes theres some charalatans but ask around and get a recommendation) just in the spirit of investigation - with a truly open mind and heart - you never know it might give you a more complete picture - surely embracing new ways of thinking can only benefit us - "the more I learn - the less I know"