Writing on the wall

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The world is divided into two kinds of substances – medicines and non-medicines. You will notice this doesn’t leave room for the pseudo-category of “alternative medicines”, those are substances that don’t exist.

Yet there appear to be moves to regulate the “alternative medicine” industry, with things like registration, regulation of activities, training requirements and so on. There are already, apparently, organisations whose membership comprises the various branches of quackery.

At first sight such moves might be welcomed, making sure particularly bad operatives were removed, raising standards, providing a recourse for “patients” treated badly. But it’s a two-edged sword and the negative side is much sharper than the positive. Why the quacks want such a system is apparent respectability. They would be “government approved”, could add some letters after their name “member of …”. Certificates of registration and membership to put on otherwise bare office walls, mimicking those that actual medical doctors have.

But with so little qualification in the real world the alternative medicine industry has set up a kind of parallel universe where virtual qualifications can be obtained. “Colleges of this” and “Institutes of that” give courses about nothing (as Seinfeld might say) and issue degrees when they are passed (wonder if anyone has ever failed?) – “Diploma of this”, Certificate of that” on the wall looks good to the casual visitor. But even more disturbingly, just in the corner of my eye, I seem to sense that some real universities are now offering units of mumbo jumbo too. I guess this is like the media offering “balance”, “she said, he said”, between rational thought on climate change and the denial industry.

In all of this the homeopaths, naturopaths, chiropracters, chinese herbalists, iridologists, reflexologists, and all the rest of this medieval superstition passing as medicine, are following the same path as those other believers from medieval times the creationists and the neoconservative libertarians. Creationists establish bible based “universities” which in the free speech US of A are seen as valid, and “museums” with exhibits of human-dinosaur coexistence. Libertarians set up “think tanks” funded by those public-spirited people from industries like tobacco and oil. In both cases the motive is the same, to give people spouting garbage a platform and a piece of paper on the wall, a set of letters after the name, that will convince the gullible that they are talking real science, real economics.

Hard to decide which of these three groups of charlatans is the most damaging. Possibly alternative medicine by a whisker (and the eye of a toad) if only because people can die horribly when they put their trust in the quack practitioners instead of real doctors. But the other two are damaging the minds of children on the one hand, and our society on the other.

Next time someone says to you “trust me I am from the college of libertarians” (or homeopaths or intelligent designers) look carefully at the fine print on the certificate on the wall. It’s probably a clause disclaiming all responsibility for your well-being. Treat it as an escape clause. Go and see a real economist, scientist or doctor.