SNAKE OIL SCIENCE
The Truth About Complimentary and Alternative Medicine
by R. Barker Bausell
Oxford University Press.
Millions of people worldwide swear by such therapies as acupuncture, herbal cures, and homoeopathic remedies. In Snake Oil Science Bausell provides an engaging look at the scientific evidence for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and at the logical, psychological, and physiological pitfalls that lead otherwise intelligent people – including researchers, physicians, and therapists – to endorse these cures. The book’s ultimate goal is to reveal not whether these therapies work – as Bausell explains, most do work, although weakly and temporarily – but whether they work for the reasons their proponents believe. Indeed, as Bausell shows, it is largely the placebo effect, along with statistical and methodological deficiencies in CAM research, that account for the positive results reported in the media and in some scientific literature. A multitude of impediments that prevent valid inferences are highlighted in the book.
Besides clinical trials, the book also looks at the biological and biochemical bases of CAM therapies and concludes that there are none, at least for those therapies that were assessed. This may be regarded as somewhat of a circular argument, considering that the author defines CAM as therapies of which the biological or biochemical bases have been discredited. It is nevertheless informative.
The book is somewhat flawed by Bausell’s own bias in favour of American / English language research. All studies not recorded in the English language are lumped together as “non-English” and then treated as being of inferior validity without the author providing sound statistical proof that language is a reliable measure to assess the quality of medical research. We are, for instance, aware of excellent medical research that has been conducted in continental Europe. Bausell’s disdain in this instance comes across as snobbish.
The wide array of CAM therapies and the amount of research done on them are so vast that it becomes extremely difficult to make a blanket claim regarding their efficacies. The possibility that some of these treatments might have positive effects over and above the placebo effect cannot be ruled out entirely, but should be treated as rather improbable.
For SA, where we have an ideological bias in favour of traditional healing, it is important to take note of the numerous pitfalls in conducting clinical trials. This book exposes many of those pitfalls very well.