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Science Envy in Alternative Medicine

Harriet Hall, MD, also known as “The SkepDoc,” is a retired family physician, a CSI fellow, and an editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog. Her website is www.skepdoc.info.

One definition of alternative medicine is medicine that is not supported by good enough evidence to have earned a place in mainstream medicine. Comedian Tim Minchin asked, “What do you call alternative medicine works? Medicine.” That’s a simplistic answer good for laughs, but the truth is a bit more complicated.

Alternative medicine embraces many things: treatments that have never been tested or have not been adequately tested; treatments that have been tested and shown not to work; treatments that are based on nonexistent phenomena such as human energy fields and acupoints; treatments such as homeopathy that if true would violate established scientific knowledge; and treatments that have been proven to work but that mainstream doctors have good reasons not to recommend.

Some examples of those reasons:

• Tai chi has been proven to reduce falls in the elderly, but other more conventional treatments might be more suitable, cheaper, or more available.

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