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Erroneous Beliefs and Alternative Medicine

The placebo effect is a powerful one: "If a layperson a) receives treatment intended to make him better, and b) gets better, then no power of reasoning know to medical science can convince him that it may not have been the treatment that restored his health."

There is a pervasive belief in holistic medicine that diseases are caused by mental states and can be cured by an exericse of will. "Ilness occurs when people don't grow and develop their potentials." says one holistic nursing textbook. The sick and disabled are subject to blame, by themselves and others, for their misfortune. While there are indeed health benefits from healthy living, exericse, and stress reduction, holistic medicine grossly overvalues the effect of these on advanced organic pathology. For example, there is a growing trend in holistic medicine that cancer patients can "cure themselves" by adopting a positive mental state. Research shows, however, that a positive mental state, while it may increase the quality of life, has no effect on cancer mortality rates. Such attributions of illness to mental states only serve to further blame the victims. It is reminiscent of how those who suffered from tuberculosis were blamed for their affliction before the discovery of the tubercle bacillus.

Alternative medicines and holistic healers usually don't claim to offer remedies for specific disabilities. They instead offer cures for relatively invisible or ambiguous maladies like burstitis, migraines, cancer, hearing loss.. Without a precise specification of what constitutes success and failure, our hopes and expectations can lead us to detect more support for a given treatment than is actually warranted. Even Nobel Prize winners can be misled by the juggling of ambiguous criteria: Linus Pauling, a long-time proponent of vitamin C as an antidote to the common cold and other physical ailments, was once asked whether it was true that he and his wife (who, of course, consume copious amounts of the vitamin) no longer suffer from colds. "It is true," he said, "We don't get colds at all." Then he added, "Just sniffles."
This reliance on ambiguity is shown in an anecdote about a Frenchman who visited Lourdes, a site famous for its "healing energy." After seeing an abundance of discarded eyeglasses, hearing aids, canes, etc.., he remarked, "What? No artificial limbs?"