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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.

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