Last year I was privileged to give one of my talks at Google’s headquarters, called an Authors@Google talk.
Google is a very interesting environment, intellectually speaking. There genuinely are a lot of really smart people there. There are also an even larger number of “smart by association” people. Google is located in the San Francisco bay area, which is one of the world’s vortex focal points of New Age woo. It’s also very metro – lots of foodies and environmentalists, and a lot of style. Many Google folks are young and hip and see themselves on the Cutting Edge. Thus, smart as many of them may be, or indeed are, my experience was that they are one of the world’s great low-hanging fruit customer bases for anyone selling anything positioned as alternative, enlightened, or “open-minded”.
Thus I was not surprised to hear from the informal skeptics’ group on campus (who sponsored my talk) that a naturopath was coming to give an @Google talk of her own. The intent of this blog post is to offer a foundation on naturopathy for those in the audience to better contextualize what they’re about to be told, and to ask informed questions. If this naturopath is coming in and planning to state that any of her treatments can diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, that’s an illegal medical claim; and her information should not be promoted by Google as true or reliable. My sense is that this naturopath feels this opportunity is going to be her free sales pitch. Not if we can help it.
Although naturopaths almost universally claim otherwise, there is no training or licensing required to hang out a shingle, call yourself a naturopath, call yourself Doctor, and give naturopathic treatment (except in a very few jurisdictions where it’s illegal to call yourself a doctor unless you actually are one). The reason for this is that the treatments are not regulated, since no good evidence exists that they might have any effectiveness beyond placebo.
Naturopathy is not recognized as a legitimate medical specialty by the American Board of Medical Specialties, so naturopaths cannot claim to be board certified by a legitimate medical board. They’ve solved this by creating their own certification boards. There are nearly as many of these as there are naturopaths, similar to the situation that exists for chiropractors. For a naturopath to claim to be board certified is equivalent to me calling myself Certified by the Board of Brians. It carries no meaning whatsoever in any recognized medical arena.
Similarly, doctorate degree programs in naturopathy are not accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation; thus naturopathic training institutions “self-accredit” through their own accreditation board, the unsurprisingly-named Council on Naturopathic Medical Education.
I have researched and written extensively on many of the treatments that this naturopath offers, which, according to her web page, are naturopathy including herbal treatments and detoxification, craniosacral therapy, and homeopathy. Before we get into any of these specifically, I’ll begin with a few general questions I would like to ask her:
- The FDA does not allow naturopaths to claim that their services can diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. If a customer comes to you with an expectation of receiving treatment for a medical condition, what do you tell them?
- Obviously you’re aware that naturopathy is not recognized as a legitimate medical specialty, and that it receives harsh criticism from medical science. Do you think medical science is wrong?
- Naturopaths are legally prohibited from providing services that have been found to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. If you want to help people, why become a naturopath when you could provide proven treatments as a medical doctor?
- I noticed on your web page that you place a lot of importance on spending time with your patients, listening to your patients, and discussing your patient’s specific health issues. Practitioners of science-based medicine assert that it’s actually this time and attention that provides any beneficial effect that’s realized, as opposed to the “naturopathic” remedies themselves. What is your response to this?
So let’s move onto the specific treatments, beginning with detoxification. The body has a natural detoxification system that has proven effective for millions of years: poop and pee. The liver and kidneys are remarkably good at what they do. Yet, paradoxically, naturopaths are the ones telling us that we should not rely on nature’s detoxification system; rather, that we should purchase expensive products and services from them to do the job.
Why? Because we live in a “toxic environment”, they usually tell us. See this 3-minute YouTube video I made that discusses this in a pretty good overview. Note that they never tell you what the “toxin” is, how you got it, or what the safe/normal level is compared to the level found in your blood.
Most “detoxification” involves little more than the sale of worthless herbal supplements that probably don’t do any harm to anything except your wallet, but there is a darker side to detoxification. It’s called the Provoked Urine Test or Urine Toxic Metals test, used to defraud victims into believing they have a dangerous level of toxic metal in their body. These tests always read positive. This “diagnosis” is sometimes followed with chelation therapy. When given with actual active ingredients, chelation therapy is dangerous and very hard on your liver, and is only indicated in true cases of acute heavy metal poisoning. Read this lengthy article on Quackwatch to learn more about the provoked urine test, and how and why it is used by practitioners who are either willfully ignorant or deliberately deceptive.
Make no mistake: Herbs are pharmacological compounds, and therefore drugs – untested and unapproved drugs. If she administers drugs to a customer, even if she calls them harmless all-natural herbal supplements, she’d better have a damn good reason.
- How do you define the word “toxin”?
- If you find that a patient requires detoxification, shouldn’t you first recommend that they visit a medical doctor for a blood test to confirm a dangerous level of the toxic compound, before undergoing any kind of drug therapy?
- You’re undoubtedly aware that medical science does not recognize detoxification as a medical field. How do you account for this?
- Why don’t medical doctors ever recommend detoxification procedures such as those you sell?
- What do you think of detox products such as the pills that create rubbery bowel movements and vinegar-charged adhesive footpads? Why are your products better?
- What are the symptoms of “need for detoxification”, and how often do you refuse drug therapy to someone who does not exhibit those symptoms?
Homeopathy is next on the list. This technique from 1807 asserts that water can carry a “spiritual imprint” of something it once came into contact with; and that the spiritual imprint of a poison can cure the very disease the actual poison would cause. By diluting the substance with water far beyond chemical purity (Avogadro’s number, 6 × 1023) until none of the substance remains, it becomes an incredibly powerful cure. They call this spiritual imprint “water memory”.
A typical homeopathic dilution, 30C, means 100 (Roman numeral C) to the 30th power. One molecule of ingredient in 10030 molecules of water would be a sphere of water approximately the size of the Earth’s orbit.
Some homeopaths say that a tiny diluted amount of a toxin works just like a vaccine, by stimulating the body’s natural responses. This is an invalid comparison. Vaccines contain active ingredients, whereas homeopathy, by definition, has no active ingredient at all.
But pointing out all the flaws in the concept don’t prove that homeopathy doesn’t work. It may, through some yet-unknown mechanism. The problem is it doesn’t. This has been borne out in testing time and time again. All the studies showing an effect have been poorly designed, usually uncontrolled, and published only in the homeopathy industry’s own journals. For more, see my Skeptoid episode about it.
- Are there any medical conditions that you’ve found homeopathy doesn’t help, and if so, how did you reach that conclusion?
- The head of the British Homeopathic Association said that the only way to tell different homeopathic remedies apart was by reading the label, that there is no chemical difference. If you’re out of compound A, why not just give them compound B?
Here’s my favorite question that I’d love to hear a homeopath answer:
- Even assuming that water memory is real, homeopathic pills are dry. According to the ingredients, they contain no water. How do the only ingredients listed – lactose and sucrose – carry water memory?
Craniosacral therapy is fatally flawed from the outset. It is the intended manipulation of bones in the skull through manual pressure, thus affecting the pressure of cerebrospinal fluid and membranes. However, the bones of the skull are fused and do not move at all when massaged (which was unknown to the technique’s 1899 inventor). Even though this is now understood, craniosacral therapy is still practiced, in flagrant contempt of basic anatomical knowledge. For an excellent in-depth discussion of how foolish and unscientific this practice is, see Dr. Stephen Barrett’s excellent article on Quackwatch.
In my experience, practitioners merely give a scalp massage. Like all massages, these have legitimate benefits of relaxation and stress reduction. That’s fine. But there are two problems with a naturopath selling a scalp massage as craniosacral therapy:
- It’s not craniosacral therapy. It’s a scalp massage. Craniosacral therapy is the manipulation of your skull bones.
- If called what it is, it’s illegal. To sell a massage requires a license in massage therapy. Perhaps some craniosacral therapists also have this license. The legal loophole is to call the massage craniosacral therapy, which is unregulated.
Reflexologists use this same trick to legally sell a great-feeling foot massage. Reflexology is, of course, very different.
My questions on this practice:
- The bones of the skull are fused, yet craniosacral therapy is defined as the manipulation of cerebrospinal fluids and membranes through moving these bones. How do you reconcile that?
- Are you a licensed massage therapist?
My experience with such practitioners is that when they are confronted with such questions, they usually have two holes they run to: First, the conspiracy of the medical establishment. It’s corrupt, greed-driven, and full of conflicts of interest. Much of this may be true; but pointing out flaws in the medical industry in no way constitutes scientific support for alternative medicine. (If she mentions greed, ask if her services are provided free. According to her web site, everything is well over $100/hour, which far exceeds the deductible you’d pay at your doctor’s office.)
Second, the tired old open-minded vs. closed-minded argument. It is not closed-minded to accept what we’ve been able to learn through science. It is open-minded to ask questions, and proper to use science to find the answers. It is, however, closed-minded to ask questions, learn the answers through testing and experimentation, but then to reject those answers in favor of your desired conclusion.
I think this is enough to get us started. I’d be very interested to see how this Q&A session goes. Often the Authors@Google program uploads their talks to YouTube, and if they do with this one, I’ll update this page with the link.