Tag Archives: quacktitioners

Quacktitioners III – a little bit of ‘me’ time

Oh dear, this isn’t going to be popular. And the reason it isn’t going to be popular is because I’m suggesting that women go to alternative practitioners for the same reason that men go to sex workers – for rest and relaxation or, as the women’s magazines call it, “a little bit of ‘me’ time”. Hear me out before you dismiss me as salacious or simplistic: it’s a conclusion it’s taken me a couple of years to arrive at and it’s one I’d like to test in debate.

When we ask “what do alternative therapists offer that doctors don’t” the simplest answer is “45 minutes of undivided attention”. There are plenty of other answers the most worrying of which is “hope”, but this post is not about desperate searches for a reprieve from a death sentence, it’s about healthy people who go time and again to alternative practitioners. I know what they’re like. I’m one of them.

In my time I’ve spent thousands on alternative therapists.  I’ve had pins stuck in my flesh, candles balanced on my ears and my aura captured in photographs.  I’ve had my chackras re-aligned, the state of my gut diagnosed by the strength in my arms and been annointed with everything from marigolds to onions.  One osteopath refused to chant over me on the grounds that “it’s a bit too shamanic for Cheltenham” but he was willing to do it in Stroud. Make of that what you will.

It was all money fantastically well spent even though none of it cured anything, though the shamanic osteopath did free up a neck muscle which had gone into spasm. But I got a bargain every time, because what I was really buying was 45 minutes of uncritical attention.

Men go to sex workers for this, though in their case they want orgasms rather than attention, but then they’re from Mars. Vive la différence.

So here is my two pronged observation:

  • Firstly, that what pays alternative therapists’ rent and rates is a predominantly feminine need for someone else’s considered attention and non-threatening touch
  • And secondly that men tend to sexualise sensations, and women tend to de-sexualise them, and alternative therapists and beauty therapists offer some decidedly odd services in a women-friendly way

If you’re not sure about my second point, ask yourself why it is that if men want a massage or colonic irrigation or to be wrapped in cling-film or put in a sensory deprivation tank it’s sexual and they look around on the scene or go to a sex worker, but if women want any of those things it’s beauty treatment and they go to a health spa?

Please think about this for a while because it’s probably one of those things that you’ve taken for granted for so long that you’ve never realised just how strange it is. Yes, I know that health spas will happily take a man’s money and wrap him in mud and cling-film, but let’s face it, men who really want this sensation see it as a form of bondage (it’s called “mummification”) and find other fetishists or go to some highly specialised sex workers. And equally, if having your insides washed out with warm water is your thang, then women want Enya playing in the background and the gentle aromas of neroli and ylang ylang floating in the air and men, um, don’t.

But think how peculiar this is. Same physical sensation interpreted in very different ways. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s very odd and very interesting.

So, what do we do with this observation? I dunno, and there isn’t room here for my thoughts and speculations on the subject. But if the medical profession is serious about casting a harshly critical light on to alternative therapies, then it should consider what it is that people are buying, and if you ask me, it’s attention.

Personally, I think that the alternative practitioners are providing a service as necessary and helpful to society as the service provided by prostitutes, and while I’m certainly in favour of regulation, I don’t think banning either helps.

Quactitioners II – The mystery of medical history

The Jobbing Doctor has an excellent quote on his blog:

One reason why medical history is not much taught in medical schools is that so much of it is an embarrassment – Lewis Thomas (1992)

Thomas put his finger firmly on one of the problems with the debate between scientific medicine and alternative medicine: scientific medicine’s reluctance to face the fact that in the bad old days doctors were as ignorant and dangerous as anyone else. This is counterbalanced by the fact that alternative practitioners are reluctant to accept that modern evidence-based medicine is safe. Established orthodoxy has moved on and the rebels haven’t, and this is causing wires to be crossed.

It would assist the argument enormously if medicine owned up to its embarrassing history, and then disowned it, staking its claim to be the truly revolutionary movement and the real alternative to the dangerous practices of the past.

You’ve seen the full version of this grid before. However that was a 20th and 21st century version. This version shows the situation in the 19th century when there was little science, and practice was based on observation and experience rather than trials.

19th Century Medicine - and its Alternatives

Despite this, medics and sceptics frequently talk and write as if there have always been two separate paths – scientific medicine (good), and alternative medicine (bad), and I’m not convinced of this.

18th and early 19th century doctors were a dangerous bunch, as ignorant and hopeful as the herbalists and homoeopaths but with a fondness for powerful drugs, and frequently with an arrogant attitude. They killed millions of new mothers by giving them “child-bed fever” because they didn’t know that infection can be communicated by touch. They’d treat just about anything by drawing blood. Their favourite medicine was calomel which induced vomiting and acted as a laxative because it’s toxic. Their patients became addicted to opium in the form of laudanum. (When a showed a draft of this to a young doctor he pointed out that his predecessors used to massage women to orgasm to cure “hysteria”. It’s not called “doctors and nurses” for nothing). Dodgy sexual practices aside, it was no wonder that Samuel Hahnemann and Edward Bach devised gentler alternatives, even if the reason these alternatives did no harm was because they did no good.

So, if doctors were as ignorant as other practitioners in the 18th and early 19th centuries, what has changed? And what hasn’t?

The big change of course is that medicine now works. It cures diseases and in the main it doesn’t kill people. We now benefit from antibiotics, immunisation and increased standards of public health, not to mention treatments for everything from athlete’s foot to cancer. And all as a result of acute observation, empirical testing, double-blind clinical trials, and a widely-published and peer-reviewed evidence-base. The roll-call of conditions which are a thing of the past is awesome, and medicine has done away with these in the last 100 years or so.

By contrast, not much has changed in the practice of alternative therapies. This is partly because “traditional” is “good”, and partly because clinical trials are expensive and will either show that the interventions are not very effective (herbalism) or not effective at all (homoeopathy). Ben Goldacre rightly criticises homoeopaths for their lack of self-criticism and for treating their founder’s approach as dogma, and they most certainly aren’t the only ones. He contrasts this complacency and stasis with the continuous questioning of the scientific approach and the constantly moving medical frontier.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the rhetoric of the alternativists. They still talk about medicine as if its practices were as dangerous and untested as they were in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are a whole bunch of reasons for this, including the difficulties the lay person has with medical science because of the poor quality of science education in our schools, the challenges in creating and interpreting drug trials (listen to R4’s excellent edition of More or Less on the subject), and the confusion that understandably arises about where and why to draw the line between things science can be certain about and things it can’t. Oh, and demonising doctors is good for business, of course.

But has the rhetoric of the doctors changed either? The science has, and the outcomes of the science most certainly have, but has the rhetoric? (I genuinely don’t know).

I’m asking because, as I said right at the beginning of this piece, if modern medicine admitted its murky past, it would make it much easier for us all to point out that the alternative practitioners are still living in it.