Review of Trick or Treatment

trick_or_treatmentTrick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst is a book that explains how ineffective medical techniques were until medical professionals adopted a scientific approach to testing treatments, and reviews how various alternative medicines have performed under the scrutiny of high-quality modern clinical trials.

This book will be interesting to ancaps for two reasons. The first is that those of us who were not raised libertarian but had to go through the world-shattering process of learning it as adults tend to be vulnerable to people peddling bad medical advice and bogus treatments. This book will help protect you from charlatans and snake-oil salesmen.

The second reason is that it contains interesting historical facts about how government has impeded progress in the medical field, adding to its already-unfathomable death toll.

By the start of the twentieth century, acupuncture was extinct in the West and dormant in the East. It might have fallen out of favor permanently, but it suddenly experienced a revival in 1949 as a direct result of the communist revolution and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao Tse-tung engineered a resurgence in traditional Chinese medicine, which included not just acupuncture, but also Chinese herbal medicine and other therapies. His motivation was partly ideological, insasmuch as he wanted to reinforce a sense of national pride in Chinese medicine. However, he was also driven by necessity. He had promised to deliver affordable health care in both urban and rural regions, which was only achievable via the network of traditional healers, the so-called ‘barefoot doctors’. Mao did not care whether traditional Chinese medicine worked, as long as he could keep the masses contented. In fact, his personal physician, Zhisui Li, wrote a memoir entitled The Private Life of Chairman Mao, in which he quoted Mao as saying, “Even though I believe we should promote Chinese medicine, I personally do not believe in it. I don’t take Chinese medicine.”

As a result of China’s propaganda, acupuncture began to spread to the West. China does not get all of the blame though. It had a good deal of help from another government entity: the World Health Organization. In 1979, the WHO released “Acupuncture: the WHO view” which stated that acupuncture was effective for many conditions. Then in 2003, the WHO released a follow-up report.

The 2003 WHO report concluded that the benefits of acupuncture were either ‘proven’ or ‘had been shown’ in the treatment of ninety-one conditions… The WHO had given acupuncture a ringing endorsement, reinforcing their 1979 report… Regrettably, as we shall see, the 2003 WHO report was shockingly misleading.

The authors then continue:

If we cannot trust the WHO to summarize adequately the vast number of clinical trials concerning acupuncture, then to whom do we turn? Fortunately, several academics around the world have made up for the WHO’s failure by providing their own summaries of the research.

Another dying alternative medicine called homeopathy got a similar boost in the 20th century:

…the Third Reich, whose leaders sought to develop the Neue Deutsche Heilkunde (the New German Medicine), an innovative medical system that would combine the best of both modern and traditional medicine. The first hospital to implement fully the Neue Deutsche Heilkunde was founded in Dresden in 1934 and was named after Rudolf Hess, who was Hitler’s deputy at the time.

Nazis and communists were not the only governments pushing alternative medicine, though. For example, in 1948 Britain “King George played an influential role in enabling homeopathic hospitals to come under the umbrella of the newly formed National Health Service”. Then in America, “it was the influence of men like Senator Royal Copeland that allowed homeopathy to survive despite the general trend away from Hahnemann’s philosophy and towards the use of treatments with a more scientific and reliable foundation.”

Recently, the Prince of Wales has been working hard to push alternative medicine in the UK. The London professor Michael Baum put his disgust nicely, saying of the prince: “The power of my authority comes with a knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research. Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth.” The book goes on to berate the prince and the way he has been able to get bureaucrats to foist bullshit on the public.

So, while this book primarily evaluates alternative medicine from a practical perspective, there is enough ethics and economics sprinkled in to make it a fun read for any ancap.

A quality review of a controversial topic in science from a non-libertarian perspective. Four Murrays.

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