A look at new age remedies and healing.
Continued from Part I
With most of the new age ‘alternative’ therapies, there is a feeling that modern science has tackled the problem in the wrong way. Science has failed, and it is time to look at the problem from a different perspective. But this is to confuse the line of research with scientific methodology. A line of research, such as the role of gene expression in cancer patients, might affect a cure or be a dead end, but ‘science’ is the methodology used. It is an approach that goes beyond the simplistic anecdotal evidence that is the basis of so many alternative medicine stories. For instance the lady who undertook the Buddhist Chanting – as a single story it is anecdotal. We do not know all the factors involved. Only by applying a proper study, with scientific methodology could we really start to make claims. If 100 such patients were studied, and 50 of them took up chanting, we can correlate the statistics to see if chanting has an effect. This is called Occham’s Razor – trying to isolate single factors, vary them, and correlate the results. There are problems with this approach too of course. Does one need to be a Buddhist? Was it the chanting or some emotional or thought shift that was the deciding factor? The Occham’s Razor approach should seek to neutralise all other factors.
Science is not wrong. It is an approach that will coolly seek to isolate determining factors, and eliminate inconsequential ones, without bias. Homeopathy for instance, has continually failed to produce verifiable, repeatable results, despite many studies attempting to prove it. The faithful are unshaken of course, as can be seen in one of Richard Dawkins newer documentaries where he visits some of the ‘alternative’ medicine disciplines. Acupuncture has been extensively researched, with mixed results. It does have a provable effect in some cases, but has not produced clear, repeatable results thus far (partly due to not understanding how it works). Other cures and treatments, sometimes rather bizarre, do produce repeatable, statistically significant results. Cranberry juice for instance, has a proven reliability in reducing the PSA counts in prostate cancer patients. Magnets, against all the odds, actually do have a proven relationship with the healing of fractured bones. Research into Vitamin D has proven a connection to a variety of diseases (primarily by statistical research, rather than clinical).
The independent ran a story on a woman Alison Kelly who claims that cancer surgery and chemotherapy made her desperately ill. To read her story it seems as if the standard approaches of mainstream medicine are as destructive and counter productive as blood letting used to be. She abandoned the established treatments and took her own path focussing on diet and meditation. Her health soon improved, and now she claims to be happier and healthier than ever before (it should be noted that she had undertaken mainstream-style surgery before taking her own path).
A psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, she teaches meditation and stress management. Thus it is fitting she looked to these, her own qualities, for her ‘cure’. Media reporting of such cases is somewhat dangerous as the stories are purely anecdotal, yet create the impression of a ‘proven’ case. They also make for high impact stories, in a way that makes it hard for real research to compete for column inches. Presenting dry research of statistics and control groups does not make for sensational media, compared to heart grabbing personal stories.
For instance, the stress reduction via meditation similar to that used by Kelly, has a basis in good science. The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, at the University of Mass. USA has extended massive programs of meditation with carefully monitored effects, both physiologically tested and subjectively reported. We can now show that mediation reduces or eliminates a whole array of stress related symptoms. However the relation of such symptoms (blood pressure, heart rate, gene expression etc..) to deeper rooted illnesses such as heart disease or cancer is more debatable. So far there are no studies proving meditators have better health or lower incidence of disease because of their meditation, rather the generally healthier lifestyle of diet and exercise that meditators tend to follow.
So how to understand the anecdotal stores such as Kelly? She is certainly courageous and has tackled her situation with admirable resolve. It does seem that time spent on the meditation cushion does prepare one mentally and spiritually for both illness and dying. But as to what has enabled her to survive as long as she has in good health … Dr John Kennedy (same article) from the St James Hospital, Dublin, and chairman of the Irish Cancer Society medical committee, had this to say:
In many instances, we would give chemotherapy or hormonal therapy or radiotherapy to patients who have had surgery because we know from carefully conducted clinical trials that this gives them a higher chance of being cured than people who don’t have those treatments.
If a patient who goes off and has coffee ground enemas, ground up peach pits and God knows what else, there’s no evidence whatsoever, just because that patient is fine, that those treatments have done anything for her. This is the kind of thing that the alternative medicine industry thrives on
Somewhere between the extremes there needs to be some proper science conducted. ‘Traditional’ ‘New Age’ ‘Holistic’ etc… these resources need to be thoroughly tested and investigated scientifically, with a sympathetic eye.