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Exorcism, Homeopathy and Alternative Medicine

This is an excerpt from another entry on this blog. The original entry was so long that I wasn't sure people would read the whole thing, so I've decided to pull out the best parts into their own entries.

Yet again, watching T.V. with my wife, we saw a show on the National Geographic Channel, Is It Real? (which is turning out to be one of my favorite shows, by the way). This particular episode dealt with exorcisms. Actually, at the time of writing this, if you go to National Geographic's Video Archive, and do a search on "exorcism," you can find a short clip from the episode. And really, I don't know exactly how many people are buying into this, but from the video clips you could see on the show, there were some pretty big crowds at the services of one particular exorcist, Bob Larson.

While I was watching this man perform his exorcisms, I was struck by one thing, before they ever even introduced the skeptics (so I don't think I was being biased by their views), and that was how much the whole thing looked like stage hypnosis. There was the preacher, up at the front of a big crowd, with his "patient" there with him, and he kept talking to "the demons" possessing these people. I mean, the susceptibility of the human mind to the power of suggestion is a lot greater than most of us would like to believe. And it's not necessarily stupid people (Nobel laureate Richard Feynman discusses being hypnotized by a stage magician in one of his books), it's just that certain people have a disposition towards being hypnotized. So, I told my wife that's what was going on, and lo and behold, a few minutes later when National Geographic showed the experts, that's exactly what they thought was going on.

Although I'm a bit skeptical, I tend to be very trusting of people. So I saw this man doing his exorcisms, and I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, that he believed in what he was doing just as much as the people being exorcised. I told my wife that, but she doesn't have quite as high of a regard of human nature. Her response was, "I bet he's selling something and making a lot of money off of this." And just a few minutes later, they show how he sells books and videos at his services.

I wish I could find a transcript of this episode, or maybe catch it on T.V. again to get this certain quote. One woman said that she'd been excorcised by Larson many times, I think in the double digits. That right there should be a signal that these people aren't doing what they say they're doing. I guess you can come up with lots of rationalizations for this (more than one evil spirit, getting re-possessed), but I'd seriously question the validity of an exorcist who needs repeat business. And this helps bring up the point of what is wrong with people buying into this - they're not getting the real help that they need.

These people have problems. They wouldn't be seeking out help if they didn't. And obviously, many of these people believe that the exorcists are really doing some good for them. I had a brief discussion on this topic with an acquaintance of mine, who said that maybe the psychological effects of believing that you've been helped really do help. Well, that may be true to some extent, but I think the case of the woman going back to the exorcist multiple times shows the problems with that. She's not getting the help that she needs. People may argue that psychologists don't cure you in one visit, either, or that some psychologists are too quick to give out drugs, but at least they're trying to find and treat the actual problem, not just hypnotizing you and shouting "Devil be gone."

Well, I'd like to rant on this a little bit more, but without having a transcript of the episode, or writing this while the episode is still fresh in my memory, I just can't remember enough to bring up any good points, so I'll just move on to discussing alternative medicine in general.

Americans seem to be embracing alternative medicine these days, and I really just don't understand it. A few years ago, I was with a group of acquaintances, and one other man who knew them that I had just met that night and never saw again. But I still remember one statement this man said. We were out having dinner, and the topic came up of what we all did, and what our wives did. He told how his wife was into homeopathy, and the statement that really sticks out in my mind, "Western medicine can't explain it, so they just dismiss it." And that seems to be a common mantra among people that are into this sort of thing. Now, medicine is just like any other science, there are unknowns. But, just like any other science, it's based on experiment and evidence. Doctors perform studies on large groups of individuals, and study the results of those studies, and from that determine what treatments work and what treatments don't. And you know what, sometimes the doctors don't understand why exactly a certain treatment performs the way it does, but if they find a signficant statistical correlation from their study, they'll dig into it further. They don't just dismiss things things that they can't explain. You'll find examples of this all the time, such as a recent article on news@nature.com, explaining how a certain drug originally intended to combat Lou Gehrig's disease also caused a loss of appetite. The doctors couldn't explain it at first, but after some studying found that it had to do with growth of new cells in the hypothalamus. And they still don't understand exactly what's going on, but they can see that something's happening.

I think that a lot of homeopathic remedies work to some degree not because there's anything beneficial about the remedy itself, but because of the placebo effect (more info at Wikipedia). Basically, if you believe something will work, no matter how ineffectual it actually is, you will at least perceive less of the symptoms, and might actually get somewhat better. Not too long ago, I went on a cruise with my family. The first night out, the seas were a little rough and lots of people were getting seasick. The crew had two remedies to sell- dramamine tablets, or metal bracelets. The crew seemed to be recommending the bracelets quite a bit, and I saw quite a few people buying them. I heard one customer ask if they really worked. I really wanted to tell him that it would work just as much as he wanted to believe that it did, but I bit my lip.

There may be some home remedies or alternative medicines that do legitimately work, not just the placebo effect, but actually having a measureable impact. After all, modern medicine has gotten several of its treatments from traditional remedies. For an example, look at how we've gotten aspirin from the traditional remedy of using willow bark (More Info). The difference is, though, that modern medicine approaches the problems more scientifically. Not just to try and figure out what works and how it works, like I've already discussed, but also what side effects there might be from the treatment, or how a certain new drug might interact with other drugs. Sure, a home remedy might alleviate a certain symptom, but if you later found out that it was a carcinogen, or that it had bad side effects when mixed with the cough syrup that you take, you might have been better off to never use that home remedy, and that's one of the important safeguards that comes with the way modern medicine works.

So really, the biggest problem that I see for alternative medicines, is, like I had discussed for exorcism, that people who need help aren't getting the treatments that they really need. Not just that, but because these remedies aren't studied as extensively as conventional medicine, there could be bad side effects that people don't realize.


You Gotcha real nice blog

Well, I'd like to rant on this a little bit more, but without having a transcript of the episode, or writing this while the episode is still fresh in my memory, I just can't remember enough to bring up any good points, so I'll just move on to discussing alternative medicine in general.

+1 best article
Alternative Medicine

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