Somatic disorders, those you must believe in to suffer, and their “cures,” are as old as humans. Some are hilariously nutty: in southeast Asia the fear of one’s penis retracting and disappearing is known as koro. In Malaysia “running amok” is a sudden unexplained outburst of violence, and in Korea “ceiling fan death” is the horror that an electric fan in an enclosed room causes all types of maladies.
It’s easy to laugh at the weird ways of foreigners until we remember our home-grown wind turbine syndrome, cell phone brain cancer and vitamin D deficiency, to cite a few. This last is particularly obnoxious as its diagnosed by a blood test. Unless you’re African American, living underground and a vegan, the chance you are legitimately impaired due to lack of vitamin D is extremely unlikely. One after another store bought vitamin claims have been debunked. Still, some (licensed!) doctors like to diagnose this problem to cover charges of not doing anything to address general, unidentifiable aches and pains. Or to soothe an underlying hypochondria. So the patient feels he “gets his money’s worth” as when a lawyer, say, might have a client sign a meaningless contract.
Somatic conditions exist in the murky undergrowth where superstition, religion, moral panic and junk science all congregate. At heart it is a misunderstanding of causation verses co-incidence, a widely held error, and the kind of magical thinking nonsense that also fuels religion.
Hypochondria and somatic disorders are not lacking in fake “cures” and woo-woo magic therapies, and many of these fraudulent remedies invade the realm of real medicine, spilling over to make claims on real disorders.
Some widely accepted “medicine” is also built on faulty foundations. Many dietary “supplements” are not only useless, nearly all are that, but some are actually harmful. The much touted St. John’s wort (an alleged antidepressant) can be fatal for kidneys patients, for example. The New England Journal of Medicine estimates 23,000 E.R. visits a year due to the adverse effects of supplements. The latest craze for “raw” water, “raw” milk and the like are profoundly hazardous and potentially deadly: we treat water and pasteurize dairy products for a reason.
Psychologically, indulging in these phony, expensive and sometime harmful products is really virtue signaling: snobbery. Its declassee today to use brand names in our conspicuous consumption to broadcast our heightened purity (always the purity), taste and wealth. Organic produce is a classic here with its reliance on extremely shaky science for its promises of healthier eating. While not necessarily healthier, organic food certainly is expensive: phony, in other words, not healthier.
The vitamin industry as we know it was started in the 1960s and further popularized by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s when real medicine couldn’t touch the complicated, mutating virus. Real science not solving a problem is no reason to turn to junk science, though. If any of these things worked, they’d get FDA approval and enjoy the financial bonanza that bestows. Think long multi-year trials, double blind human and animal studies, efficacy disclosures, etc.
The vitamins and supplements taken by millions are great boon to humanity if that humanity is defined solely as the people who make and promote this wider swindle. In fact, nearly everyone with a normal, or even an embarrassingly bad diet, have no need for them. Rare exceptions to this include the pregnant, people with compromised immune systems or organs who can be helped by a small fraction of OTC vitamins. Ask a doctor, not the internet, GMC clerk or an idiot.
These placebo based scams aren’t limited to just products: whole professions are based on junk science. Near your correspondent’s house in Manhattan is a homoeopathy pharmacy – a known, famous fraud. Osteopathic “doctors” are classified as such due to clever political shenanigans decades ago, despite their “cures” being quackery. Although chiropractic massage can be beneficial for some chronic back pain, it’s useful for nothing else and “patients” (customers) have died from its chest “massages.” Standards and qualifications to be a nutritionist are zero. Put another way: nutritionist is to dietitian what toothiologist is to dentist. And let’s not even start on naturopathy, an art as cretinously uninformed as crystal therapy.
Meanwhile, unproven nonsense like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine continue to fool the scientifically unsophisticated. Call a scam “ancient” to give it a gloss of wisdom, tradition and awe. This despite the fact the ancients didn’t know the world was round or to not defecate in their drinking water.
Traditional Japanese Medicine (“Kampo”) is possibly less harmful than Chinese, though nearly as useless health-wise. Since no human or animal parts are used in its production Traditional Japanese Medicine doesn’t contribute to the extinction of countless species; pangolins, sea horses, tigers, elephants and rhinos. Chinese most assuredly does.
Recently Mother Jones magazine did an exposé of scented oils purporting to treat, of all things, autism. Unsurprisingly, this incredible con is in the form of a multi-level marketing scheme. Suckers bought it because, well, of course they did.
All the above are given a jolly good debunking at psychiatrist moderated quackwatch.org. But one doesn’t have to click very deeply to expose this procession of gee-gaw hawkers, faith healers and grifters called alternative or complimentary medicine.
So before we worry about our penises shrinking away or wonder which useless supplement to buy we should internalize the fact that there’s really no such thing as “alternative” medicine. Alternative medicine proven to work is called medicine. The rest is woo-woo and if you buy it the loser is you.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney and writer in New York City. He was educated at the University of Melbourne and Georgetown University in political science and psychology.