Alternative medicine as religion, one more time

A couple of days ago, I did one of my usual bits of pontification about alternative medicine, this time around pointing out how religion facilitates the magical thinking that undergirds so much pseudoscientific medicine and how the belief systems that underlie so so much of alternative medicine resembel the belief systems that underlie religion. However, in retrospect, I suspect that I might have gone a little too far. Although the two share many aspects, alternative medicine is not in general a religion (with the possible exception of reiki, which, for all intents and purposes, is faith healing that substitutes Eastern mystical beliefs for Christianity as its basis).

On the other hand, there is a major component of so much of alternative medicine that shares another major component of religion, and that’s the infantile belief that the universe actually gives a rodent’s posterior about you. In other words, many “alt-med” modalities have at their basis the idea that we humans can somehow bend the unfeeling universe to our wills in order to prevent us from ever suffering from ill health or, if we do suffer from ill health, to enable us to overcome it. The basic idea is that virtue is health, which implies that lack of virtue is ill health. What flows from this concept is that if you behave virtuously you will never get sick. The universe/nature/great spirit/whatever will see to that, because it likes it when we do the “right” things and doesn’t like it when we do not. To some extent, of course, there s a grain of truth to this sort of thinking in that eating a healthy diet, keeping your weight under control, not smoking, not drinking to excess, and in general following healthy habits will maximize your chances of remaining healthy. However, many alt-med believers go far beyond that. For example, remember how Bill Maher once said that his lifestyle would make him immune to the flu, such that he doesn’t need the flu vaccine and wouldn’t get te flu on an airplane during flu season? It was an utterance that led Bob Costas, of all people, to dismissively retort, “Gh, come on, Superman!” Other examples include claims that you can nearly completely prevent cancer through avoiding “toxins,” eating a healthy diet (defined as whatever the alt-med modality says a healthy diet is), and “living right” and that serious diseases can be cured through diet and lifestyle alone. Such beliefs, merged with prescientific vitalism, also underlie germ theory denialism, which, as hard as it is to believe, is quite common among antivaccinationists and many believers in alt-med.

At the risk of drifting too close to Godwin territory, I can’t help but liken it to the “triumph of the will”; i.e., when it comes to health, will overcomes all. Such a belief manifests itself (if you’ll excuse the phrase) in a softer, fuzzier form in The Secret, which is basically the claim (referred to as the Law of Attraction) that you attract or become what you think about and want the most. While on a certain level, it’s hard to argue that to some extent this must be true (if we want something bad enough we will try to get it, which makes it more likely that we will get it, and we do tend to hang out with people who share our general world view), on an only slightly deeper level it is obvious that there are extreme limits on how much this sort of thing can work and that it’s incredibly unreliable.

I was reminded of this, which inspired me (if you can call it that) to revisit the topic of alt-med as religion by yet another brain-fryingly silly post at the antivaccine crank blog (no, not that antivaccine crank blog!) The Thinking Moms’ Revolution entitled Cogito Ergo Sum. The particular (un)thinking mom who wrote this post goes by the ‘nym of Princess, and the post itself reveals a bit of the privileged attitude of a Princess in that Princess apparently believes that the universe will give her what she wants if she just wants it. She starts out with a mind-numbingly wrong interpretation of Descarte’s famous saying Cogito Ergo Sum (“I think therefore I am”) and then plunges straight into Secret territory. She first discusses a couple of examples from her life, such as her deciding that she wanted a job for which she was marginally qualified so badly that she pursued it with a single-minded intensity that intrigued the person advertising the position enough to hire her, to which I say: Congratulations! There’s no doubt that intent can matter a great deal. There’s also little doubt that if she hadn’t pursued the job at all (or only pursued it half-heartedly) she wouldn’t have gotten it. That’s what we call a “Well, duh!” observation. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if in Princess’ choice of examples there isn’t massive confirmation bias going on, in which she remembers the “hits,” when her intent resulted in her getting what she wants, and forgets all the failures. Perhaps the best example of probable confirmation bias is this anecdote related by Princess:

One recent hysterical example of this occurred during one of my workouts at a local boot camp. The day’s workout entailed the trainer calling out an entire deck of cards, with each suit representing a different exercise, and whose number dictated the number of repetitions we would do. At first he called aloud the queen of hearts (queen representing 14, hearts representing box jumps). Now, I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with box jumps, but I can tell you that they are one of the harder exercises we have to do. Basically, you propel all your energy and thrust your body to jump up on a 22 inch (or higher) box, both feet at once, and then jump off the box in the same fashion. After doing 14 of these, all of us were pretty exhausted! As soon as we finished, one of my classmates yelled out to the trainer, “Please don’t call the jack of hearts next!” In an instant, because of all my work playing with my attitudes and beliefs, I instinctively readied myself for the jack of hearts. Despite the entire deck of cards having been well shuffled, sure enough, the jack of hearts it was! To my delight, I smiled and annihilated each of those 13 box jumps.

One wonders how many times her prediction or wishes regarding what card was drawn failed to “manifest” itself.

In any case, it doesn’t take Princess long to jump off the proverbial deep end based on these examples, in particular her example of getting the job she wanted:

When you propel all your mental and emotional faculties toward a common vision or goal, not only are you putting out some sort of magnetic energy and attraction to the universe but you also actually create a real, physiological manifestation of cell growth in your brain. Enough practice doing this can create what is called neurogenesis – entirely new and real neuropathways that can actually also create healing within your body!!! This idea is often referred to as ‘neuroplasticity,’ the idea that our brains are like plastic and can be molded and changed, and in this case, just by thinking.

This is, of course, a massive misinterpretation of neuroplasticity (I know, big surprise there). In fact, just like the claim that various alt-med treatments can “boost the immune system” the claim that just thinking really hard about something can induce “neuroplasticity,” in essence rewiring your brain and body to heal it, is so vague as to be meaningless. Does Princess mean synaptic plasticity? The creation and removal of of synapses? The migration of neurons? Neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons)? Does she mean functional reorganization? Does she mean learning? After all, learning new tasks “rewires” the brain. In fact, contrary to the its sudden apparent discovery by woo-meisters, neuroplasticity is not a new concept. Also, as pointed out here, everything we experience in some way “rewires” the brain:

Neuroplasticity is common in popular culture at this point in time because mentioning the brain makes a claim about human nature seem more scientific, even if it is irrelevant (a tendency called ‘neuroessentialism‘).

Clearly this is rubbish and every time you hear anyone, scientist or journalist, refer to neuroplasticity, ask yourself what specifically they are talking about. If they don’t specify or can’t tell you, they are blowing hot air. In fact, if we banned the word, we would be no worse off.


To be clear, I am not suggesting that the brain is not flexible or that the discoveries about how the brain changes are not important. It’s simply that neuroplasticity has become a rhetorical device that, in itself, tells us nothing without further explanation.

All neuroscience is the science of how the brain changes and if you’re not being told exactly how this change is taking place, someone is likely wasting your time or trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

I completely agree that invocations of “neuroplasticity” of the sort that Princess does are utter nonsense. In the world of woo, Princess invoking “neuroplasticity” is no different than Deepak Chopra invoking the word “quantum” to make his nonsense about “universal consciousness” sound all science-y or Lionel Milgrom invoking “quantum effects” to “explain” homeopathy. Or, to cite a previous example, it’s no different than when quacks invoke immunity or the immune system or claim that something “boosts the immune system.” It’s no different than when naturopaths blame whatever’s wrong with you on “toxins” or when various quacks invoke epigenetics to claim that something can “heal” you or that we can radically change gene expression in various organs just by willing it. It’s all window dressing. Believers in woo like Princess sprinkle scientific language on their pseudoscience like so much glitter sprinkled on a turd to make it sparkly. Unfortunately, there’s still a turd underneath all that shiny glitter. There might be a grain of scientific validity at the center of that turd, like a kernel of corn from a previous meal, but its covered with poop.

I would beg to differ slightly here, though. Where I disagree is that, in this case at least (and probably most cases) believers aren’t trying to pull the wool over your eyes. They really believe that what they are saying is scientifically profound, a description for lay people of the latest scientific progress. Someone, somewhere, sprinkled glitter on a turd and it impressed them; so they show the turd to someone else and sprinkle even more glitter on it and are shocked when people with an actual scientific background (or at least two functioning neurons) are completely unimpressed.

So we have the window dressing. Now let’s get to the turd. In this case, the turd is the idea that because our brains have some degree of neuroplasticity it means that thinking or believing hard enough can lead to amazing changes in our brains and nervous system that lead to healing. But, even more than that, it means to Princess that by thinking happy thoughts she can heal her child’s autism. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m in no way saying that being a loving parent who supports her child is not important and can’t have profound effects. That’s about as self-evident as a contention can be. It’s not what Princess is claiming, however. Rather, she’s claiming that by thinking happy thoughts she can bend the universe to her will and not just facilitate her child’s growth and healing but create it. She’s implying, if not outright claiming, that “intent” and “belief” trump biology.

This leads Princess to conclude:

So what is the moral of the story? While doing all the other therapies and interventions for your child, nutritional, biomedical, and behavioral – do not discount the power of your beliefs and intentions. YOU have the power to help your child heal…

if you believe it so.

And if you wish for that bike badly enough, you’ll get it; that is, if your parents can afford it.

Part of growing up is the eventual realization that not only doesn’t the universe owe you anything but that wishing doesn’t make it so. For what is the sort of wishing that Princess advocates other than, in essence, praying, and what is the “conscious universe” described by Deepak Chopra but God? That is not to say that intent is unimportant, but we have to act on that intent, and even then we will often fail. Intent is not the be-all and end-all, and fetishizing it, as so many quacks do, actually obscures the fact that we actually do have quite a bit of control over our health that we can exercise through our lifestyle and diet. We just have to realize that that control is nowhere near total. “Good” people who eat all the right foods, take all the right supplements, and avoid all the bad things like smoking still get cancer and heart disease and die at a young age, and “bad” people (like, for instance, George Burns, who smoked cigars, drank, and ate lots of red meat his entire life) live to be 100.