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Convincing Sceptics of the Efficacy of Complementary Medicine

posted on 18 October 2005 | posted in Health Articles


Convincing Sceptics Of the Efficacy Of Complementary Medicine by Jane Thurnell-Read
Based on an article first published in ‘Positive Health’ in March 1998


‘You don’t really believe these bizarre techniques work, do you?’ This or other similar often less polite comments are common responses when we try to convince our more sceptical and scientific friends and acquaintances about the power and efficacy of our favourite alternative and complementary therapies. Many of us are left floundering in the face of the superiority of their total conviction in their rightness. Over the years I have developed several different approaches to the sceptic. I do not use all these approaches at the same time, but try to assess which approach will work. If one tactic doesn’t work, then I try another approach. My success is not 100% but I have managed to convince many sceptics and hostile scientists to take a second look at these ideas and therapies. Some of these original sceptics have become my greatest supporters and have, in turn, managed to convince many other people to consider these therapies.

Sceptics often see the success as being purely attributable to a placebo effect. It is argued that because people believe that it will work it does. In fact many of the people who come to me say they find it very hard to believe that it will work. Some clients ask incredulously: ‘Can this really work?’ or ‘Is that it?’ Other clients have told me that they have walked out after the first visit convinced they have just wasted their time and their money, only to find that they do get better, that their symptoms do diminish and that they feel happier and healthier than they have for a long time. It’s not a very good placebo if so many people are so unimpressed by it! Small babies and children respond to kinesiology and other therapies very well. A 6-week old baby was brought to see me because she was failing to thrive. She was sick every time she was fed and was losing weight much to the concern of her parents and the medical profession. The mother had tried various baby milk formulas (including soya-based ones) to no avail. I found that the baby was allergic to the tap water that her mother used to make up the formulas. We changed the tap water source and used some homeopathic treatment and the baby responded immediately. This can hardly be attributed to a placebo effect, particularly as the baby slept through the whole procedure, only waking as she was leaving my office. Even if it were a placebo, I have a placebo that works in many instances where conventional medicine has failed.

The most direct way to convince a sceptic is, of course, to improve his/her health using these techniques. Some years a man came to see me about the severe arthritis he had in his knees. Although he was only in his 30’s and an ambitious man he was only able to work part-time because he was in such pain. During the initial conversation he told me that I would not be able to help him. I was surprised at this and asked him why he had come to see me. He told me that both his wife and his neighbour were clients of mine. Whenever he complained about the pain in his knees they would ‘nag’ him to come and see me. He had decided he would come to see me simply to stop them nagging. I did not spend a long time explaining or justifying the strange therapy but got his agreement that he would do everything I asked him to do. He came back for the second session and told me that his knees were much worse. ‘You’re the only person that’s ever managed to do anything,’ he said. This was a rather surprising but encouraging comment. By the time he came for his third session his knees had improved dramatically and he had taken a new full-time job that involved him in driving thousands of miles each month in a non-automatic car. He was delighted and subsequently recommended many other people to come and see me.

A man with macular degeneration of the eyes said at the end of his final appointment, ‘I don’t mean to be rude. What you do is a joke, but I have no other explanation for why my eyesight is getting better.’

In the past I often offered to show sceptics how powerful health kinesiology was. Some refused to let me do anything, but others agreed to have a short session. When their symptom improved or disappeared after the treatment they would often say ‘But it would probably have gone anyway’ or ‘I don’t feel any different’. Eventually I got frustrated with this sort of response so I decided to offer to make the sceptic worse rather than better. ‘I will put your body so out of balance that you will get sickness and diarrhoea’ I now volunteer innocently. I am sure skilled homeopaths, herbalists, masseuses and reflexologists could do this too. I have not yet found anyone who is willing to let me try to do this, in spite of the fact that they believe that the therapy is nonsense! This offer of mine puts them in touch with the fact that they are not as convinced as they think they are that the therapy does not work. If they were really as certain as they claim then they would be happy to do this because they would know that I couldn’t possibly make them ill.

Many doctors only ever meet our failures. I once met a doctor who claimed that osteopathy was dangerous on the grounds that his patients who had been to see one had come back to him in more pain. I pointed out to him that if the osteopathic treatment had been successful then his patients would not have come back to him. Similarly, complementary therapists only tend to see the disasters of allopathic medicine. Many of my clients complain to me of their doctors’ insensitivity and ignorance. I always remind myself that there are many people who are satisfied with conventional medicine and the treatment they receive: they are so satisfied that they do not come to see me.

Even if sceptics admit that people are genuinely getting well they will often dismiss the therapies because we cannot adequately explain how it works. I offer the following story to these people. Many years ago when one of my sons was small we were travelling to my parents’ house to celebrate their Golden Wedding Anniversary. My son had been entranced by our preparations: the golden presents being wrapped in golden paper. On the journey we stopped at a motorway service station and he picked up a packet of Durex Gold condoms. ‘What are these?’ he asked curiously (obviously wanting to know whether this would be a good additional present for Grandma and Granddad). ‘Condoms,’ I replied. ‘What are they for?’ was the inevitable next question. ‘They are things that men put on their willies to stop ladies having babies,’ I told him. He gave me a very hard look to make certain that I really meant this bizarre statement and then he shook his head and said: ‘Strange, very strange.’ Of course, to him the idea that men wearing something could stop women having babies was bizarre, because he lacked a vital piece of information that made sense of this statement. The situation with many complementary therapies is bizarre precisely because we lack information that would make sense of it. It is the job of the scientific community to provide this information. Their model cannot explain the undoubted success of much alternative medicine. It is not sufficient (or scientific) to call the therapies bizarre and unscientific. It is necessary to find a model that makes sense of these therapies. The inadequacy is on the part of the scientific community that cannot explain kinesiology and many other successful and increasingly popular therapies. It is not on the part of therapists who are busy helping people to get better and heal themselves.

Many of the sceptics are implicitly arguing that medicine is scientific, rigorously assessed (with double blind trials etc.), but this is far from the truth. Recently, for example, saliva swabs were taken from 12,000 children whose GP’s had diagnosed that they had measles. 97.5% of these children were found not to be suffering from measles (Daily Telegraph January 8th 1997). We are not talking about doctors misdiagnosing some obscure disease, but a common disease that is much discussed. Many drugs have been found to be ineffective or, even worse, to involve serious side effects. Pethidine, for instance, given to huge numbers of women to reduce pain in labour has been found to be ineffective (What the Doctors Don’t Tell You March 1997). A doctor specialising in anaesthetic and pain relief told me that many of the operations used for intractable pain had never been fully tested and in his opinion many of these were useless procedures submitting people to more distress and pain. Many drugs have had to be withdrawn after devastating side effects have been found. In many ways doctors and ‘scientific’ people are asking standards from complementary therapy that medicine and science do not achieve.

A frequent comment from my clients is that though the therapy (in my case health kinesiology) seems bizarre, I seem very sane and down-to-earth. They feel that they can trust me and that I am acting with honesty and integrity. More than conventional doctors we need to prove that we are intelligent, honest, knowledgeable and skilful.

Jane Thurnell-Read is an author and researcher on health, allergies and stress. She has written two books for the general public: "Allergy A to Z" and "Health Kinesiology. She also maintains a web site http://www.healthandgoodness.com with tips, inspiration and information for everyone who wants to live a happier, healthier life.