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OPINIONS

Alternative medicine is not medicine

Deepak Chopra is living large. With an estimated net worth of $80 million, the New Age author could be forgiven for being a bit defensive about his affluence. In a 2012 interview, he declared: “Spiritual people should not be ashamed of being wealthy.”

Chopra should not be put on trial for simply having a fortune. Whether he should be taken to task for how he made that fortune, however, is an entirely different question. Chopra is a leader of the so-called ‘holistic medicine’ movement, a type of healing that claims to treat the whole person, rather than just the disease. In practice, this type of medicine often involves treatments and methods that the mainstream medical community disavows, like homeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine.

It is fair to say that Chopra lives within this scientific fringe. His medical theories are drawn from a strange mix of Eastern philosophy and contemporary science, the buzzwords of which he has been known to appropriate and apply completely out of context. In his book “Quantum Healing,” Chopra claims that because quantum entanglement links everything in the universe, it must be responsible for creating consciousness. He also introduced the concept of quantum healing, which he defines as the ability of one mode of consciousness to spontaneously correct the mistakes in another mode of consciousness. Chopra refers to such a correction — physicists, prepare to wince — as a quantum leap.

When questioned on his misuse of scientific terminology by Richard Dawkins, the famous skeptic, Chopra said that he had been using the term quantum as a metaphor, and that his definition of the word had little to do with its origins in quantum physics. This begs the question: If the concept that Chopra is trying to communicate has little to do with quantum physics, why would he use terms like “quantum entanglement”? While it is possible that Chopra really was attempting a poorly conceived metaphor, it seems more likely that he is using scientific jargon to add an aura of respectability to his fringe theories.

The bizarre medical theories expounded by Chopra and his colleagues might be complete nonsense, but it would be going too far to say that they do not help anyone. There are many people who claim that alternative medicine healed them after traditional methods failed.  However, it is important to note that many of the success stories of alternative medicine involve illnesses that center on the subjective experience of the patient, like depression and chronic pain. These types of illness are much more likely to be alleviated using the placebo effect than medical issues like cancer and paralysis. Given this, it is unsurprising that an article in the Atlantic heralding “The Triumph of New Age Medicine” focuses on a retired firefighter with back pain, rather than someone with late-stage AIDS.

Helping people with chronic pain via the placebo effect is nice, but there are many ways to achieve this effect that create less collateral damage. Giving someone a sugar pill is relatively simple. Creating an enormous ideological framework that clouds people’s judgements about mainstream medicine is not. The biggest problem with practitioners of alternative medicine is that they often deny the soundness of scientific studies as a measurement of the efficacy of a treatment. This is a dangerous sentiment. If Deepak Chopra were to discover a new form of medical treatment that helped sick people, it should be possible to test that the treatment is actually working. By denying the validity of the scientific method, alternative healers free themselves from any kind of accountability.

The anti-scientific sentiments behind alternative medicine are disturbingly widespread in the United States. They are the reason that one in four Americans is skeptical about global warming, despite overwhelming consensus within the scientific community. They are the reason that one in three parents believes that vaccines can cause autism, again despite overwhelming scientific consensus. These are bad numbers. They are damaging to the health of children and to the health of the planet. And they are made possible by the belief, furthered by proponents of alternative medicine, that the scientific method is inadequate.

Do not indulge Deepak Chopra. Even though a bit of quantum healing might seem benign, it contributes to an atmosphere that stifles rational thought.

I leave you with a quote from Tim Minchin, whose fantastic short film “Storm” does a fantastic job of dismantling the fuzzy logic behind the holistic medicine movement: “You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”

Contact Joel Gottsegen at joeligy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Joel Gottsegen

Joel Gottsegen '15 is an opinions columnist for the Stanford Daily. He studies computer science, with a focus on artificial intelligence. He writes short stories sometimes but doesn't show them to anyone. He writes songs sometimes and incessantly shows them to everyone. Joel thinks that despite his country's increasing polarization, it is still possible to have reasonable political discussion. You can reach him at joeligy@stanford.edu.
  • FriendlySkeptic

    Since we’re pointing them out, your voculabaric pedantry is a commission of the Red Herring logical fallacy. Your not-so-slightly-veiled Argumentum Ad Hominem, in which you suggest that the author is at the same intellectual level as your 13-year old, is also quite adorable.

  • FriendlySkeptic

    False equivalency fallacy.

  • FriendlySkeptic

    Argument from popularity fallacy.

  • FriendlySkeptic

    Even if miracles occurred (they don’t), they’re not equivalent to medicine. A miracle, by definition, is a phenomenon that can only be explained by supernatural means that are beyond any possible understanding. Your proposal is an example of the Special Pleading Fallacy. It’s the same as saying, “I can’t explain how it happened, therefore aliens did it.”

  • FriendlySkeptic

    You can bet that the phrase “quantum (anything)” would have shown up if it wasn’t the subject of the editorial.

  • Erp

    I read with interest this column; however, ‘alternative medicine’ is
    being pushed much closer to home than Chopra. Check out the Stanford
    Health Improvement Program (HIP) that Stanford staff are heavily
    encouraged to use by the university.

    See for instance the class schedule for this quarter at http://hip.stanford.edu/documents/HLSchedule.pdf

    Including classes on

    Reiki Energy Healing for Self-Care and Helping Others

    “The
    Level 2 Reiki class is designed to deepen your understanding of Reiki
    energy and its possibilities. You will learn how to use 3 Reiki symbols
    and mantras that allow you to direct or focus energy more specifically
    for self-healing and to transmit distant healings.”

    and

    Traditional Oriental Medicine

    “You
    will learn basic TOM, including theories of qi, yin and yang, the 5
    elements, and acupuncture meridians and apply them during practices of
    acupressure and qigong movement.”

    This has been going on for years (admittedly the ancient Tibetan eye treatment has been dropped).

    It
    is frankly embarrassing that Stanford is endorsing this quackery, and,
    it makes everything in the HIP program untrustworthy (which might be
    good, I haven’t had the time to investigate the more plausible
    scientific claims of some of the other classes, and, they may be just as unsupported).

  • Θανασης

    Gareth, I think both uses are legitimate. The use you describe is the older one, but this does not preclude new uses arising (and sometimes overshadowing the old use). This is a constant process in language.

    New Oxford American Dictionary:
    beg the question 1 (of a fact or action) raise a question or point that has not been dealt with; invite an obvious question. 2 avoid the question; evade the issue. 3 assume the truth of an argument or proposition to be proved, without arguing it.

    The free dictionary gives definitions from three dictionaries (McGraw-Hill, Cambridge Idioms, Cambridge American Idioms). All give both definitions. McGraw-Hill notes that “(This reinterpretation of beg the question is incorrect but is currently in widespread use.)” which is an oxymoron for a lexicographer, but I understand the intention.

    Hope this helps.

  • Guest

    Who’s the “we” you talk of? My chinese doctor would agree, who studied at university, would agree with you but you probably wouldn’t agree with him and may consider what he does alternative. I think this article is not “alternative medicine” vs western medicine. Its the opinion of its author vs Deepak Chopra, Both of which are equally dogmatic.

  • Agent of Change

    Who’s the “we” you talk of?

    My chinese doctor, who studied at university for years and then practiced with apparently great results, would agree with you whole heartedly. But you probably wouldn’t agree with him and may consider what he does alternative.

    I think this article is not “alternative medicine” vs western medicine. Its the opinion of its author vs Deepak Chopra.

    Both of which are equally dogmatic.

    Not all alternative medicines are quackery, and I’m not convinced that all would be considered medicine when/if they worked.

  • Agent of Change

    The sickest I’ve ever been is when I had a flu shot 10 years ago. Honestly never been so ill in my life for nearly two years. Every cold turned to flu and slammed me.

    I decided never to do it again. Since practicing yoga every day and taking high doses of naturopathics when a cold comes on I haven’t since had the flu once, even when all my work colleagues etc are ill I’m not.

  • Price Weston

    Incidence of Adverse Drug Reactions in Hospitalized Patients
    http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=187436

    “We estimated that in 1994 overall 2,216,000 (1,721,000-2,711,000) hospitalized patients had serious ADRs and 106,000 (76,000-137,000) had fatal ADRs, making these reactions between the fourth and sixth leading cause of death.” (Note: these are hospital admissions, ONLY.) ADR=Adverse Drug Reaction. The FDA website has a large writeup on this with a much much larger affected group of people.

    Deaths from supplements/minerals/vitamins in 2012 as reported by the U.S. National Poison Data System ….. 0. (Any cause, not just hospital admissions).

    Some alternative options have very real value as can be found by searching something like the PubMed databases. Homeopathy (drinking water), not so much except for the small additional hydration. Some items are prescription only in other countries but considered “alternative” in the US.

    WIth 56 billion doses of alternative supplements taken in 2012 with so few events of any kind, government folks should spend more time on real issues, like swimming pool deaths or something or tylenol deaths and transplants and the 10s of thousands of hospital admissions yearly from the mainstream drug.

    As to the use of the word “quantum” in health related literature, that requires the use of a salt shaker as a grain of salt isn’t enough.

  • Agent of Change

    Whats the equivalence I’m falsifying and where the fallacy?

  • abc

    Ayurveda is an ancient Indian form of medicine – usually using natural herbs to treat ailments, this has been time tested, and many of the plant extracts are now scientifically tested as well and it does work. Whoever doubts it can try it on their own.
    The problem with the new age stuff, is that it talks about the law of attraction at the basis of things, and that cannot be tested. It is because you cannot get into the mind of another person to really understand what they are thinking. Chopra mostly talks about advaita Vedanta philosophy which is very deep and it will really blow your mind once you get into it. I do believe that a hundred or two hundred years from now we will have more scientific proof of these theories. I think most of the people who criticize Chopra have never read/understood his books. I do think though he charges exorbitant amounts for his treatments.

  • susan t levy

    No one takes big pharma to task because they fund much in medical schools and universities! Scientific medicine stopped a long time ago when big pharma took over the FDA. Food companies are responsible for much of the chronic disease we see today. There is little funding and confounding factors to lay blame directly. How convenient is that truth? ANd to take Deepak Chopra to task when the evolution of real science supports his theories more today than ever before. Move along into real research not only that which funded by your pharmaceutical industry

  • Kyle Lewrafe

    So if deepak ever gets sick or ill, even in old age, he can just “think” himself better again? No medication, no treatment, no operation?