Thirteen follies and fallacies about alternative medicine

Edzard Ernst

Author Affiliations

  • Edzard Ernst, 1 University of Exeter, UK

The use of alternative medicine (AM)—treatments such as herbs or massage therapy—has long been a part of healthcare in many regions of the world “to complement mainstream medicine by contributing to a common whole, by satisfying a demand not met by orthodoxy or by diversifying the conceptual frameworks of medicine” [1]. What AM cannot do is replace conventional treatment, particularly when it comes to serious or even life‐threatening conditions. Nevertheless, many AM apologists insist that it can do so, that it is an alternative rather than a complement. This assumption can confuse patients and even endanger their lives. In this Opinion article, I explore some of the most common fallacies used to support, justify or promote AM.

1. Since many people believe in or practise AM, it is tempting to assume that it is useful. According to this argumentum ad populum, millions cannot all be wrong. However, belief can be wrong, practice can be misguided, and popularity is not a reliable indicator for effectiveness; after all, medicine is no popularity contest. The history of medicine is littered with examples that demonstrate how misleading this fallacy can be. Bloodletting was believed to be effective, was widely practised and highly popular, yet it certainly killed more patients than it ever helped.

2. The classic post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy—‘it worked for me (my aunt, my cat etc)’—is firmly engrained into the human mind. If a patient receives a treatment and then gets better, what could be more logical than to assume that the treatment was the cause of the improvement? This conclusion seems as obvious to patients—and many clinicians—as it is fallacious. Proponents of AM employ this fallacy incessantly to convince us that ineffective treatments are, in fact, effective.

Apart from the treatment per se, a whole …

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