Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine

Reviewed by Deane Barker tags: science, medicine

This book was written by a physician and medical researcher. I’s a polemic against shady “alternative medicine” practices and health conspiracy theories.

To be clear, the author isn’t against more mainstream…alternative (?) stuff – things like chiropractic, essential oils, CBD, etc. What the author is really angry about are practices that claim to heal known, treatable, and deadly diseases.

Things like laetrile, which was a cancer “cure” from the late 70s. Lots of people didn’t seek actual cancer treatment because they were convinced that laetrile would heal them. It did not, and they died.

Another target is “mega-vitamin regimens.” This is the idea that tends of thousands of milligrams of a random vitamin every day will heal you of whatever your problem is. Invariably, it does not, and people often die from not seeking treatment, as well sometimes over-dosing on things like Vitamin A and C.

Notably, the author really hate Dr. Oz. He spends a lot of time discussing him (and Oprah, by extension, for creating and enabling him). Other celebrity targets of scorn are Suzanne Somers and Jenny McCarthy.

I thought the book was just an entertaining manifesto of anger – and it is that, and does quite well at it. But, in the ending chapters, the author has a constructive and fascinating discussion of the placebo effect. It’s a real thing, and it often works, which is one reason why people believe in alternative treatments. They believed they would see an effect, which they did, so they ascribe that to the treatment.

In the final chapter, the author lays out the four things that really upset him about these treatments:

  1. They dissuade people from seeking treatments that might actually help them
  2. Some of the treatments are actually harmful
  3. Many of them are just scams to make money from vulnerable people, desperate for a cure
  4. They promote “magical thinking” and discourage people from thinking rationally about science

It’s an entertaining book and a short read. Reminded me quite a bit of Making Sense of Science: Separating Substance from Spin.

Book Info

Paul A. Offit

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