The 30 Second Skinny Alternative Medicine often makes a great deal out of its longevity, but how does alternative medicine get started in the first place? How does it keep going in the absence of evidence? This article puts forward a number of stages that contemporary treatments go through.
There is, I believe, a reasonably widespread observance of a series of stages that complementary or alternative therapies go through in their gestation before emerging fully formed as woo. I will be using the field of Nutri-Energetics as a means of demonstrating this process, bringing in various other examples as they seem appropriate. I'm putting this out into the blogosphere (shudder) as a tool skeptics can arm themselves with, but if you should choose to use these stages to develop your own bit of woo, I do expect 10% of all revenues in perpetuity.
1. Embrace mysterious science
The first stage in developing a new bit of CAM is to take a branch of science that is either very new, is itself hotly contested, or is otherwise mysterious to the average lay-person. In the case of Nutri-Energetics Systems (NES) the choice is for the mysterious - quantum mechanics. CAM loves quantum because things occur on the quantum level that, CAMsters believe, prove similar things occuring at the micro- or macroscopic level. But for NES the quantum occurences are enough on their own. The theory NES is based on, the existence of the Quantum Electro-Dynamics Body Field (QED), describes a system by which different parts of a body communicate with one another by way of Quantum Entanglement. It pulls another routine trick of CAM, which is to base much of its understanding on more established CAM, usually reflexology or acupuncture. Acupuncture is a favourite because of the peculiar belief that acupuncture has been clincally proven, or that its millennia of use somehow validates its efficacy.
2. Produce huge levels of technical understanding following little or no research
It is common, once a theory has been devised, for a full range of treatments linked to the theory to appear more or less over night. A great example from the past is the Radionics Book that the De La Warr's came up with, without seeming to have done any research into establishing the wavelengths of the various conditions radionics was supposed to cure. NES is no exception.
Fraser had worked on how to correct whatever damage or deviation there is in the human body field by developing a variety of "infoceutical" drops, solutions of minerals imprinted with magnetic vectors, that help correct the errors in the human body field.
NES has since developed a variety of standardized infoceutical drops, each specific to a particular structure in the body's energy field and affecting specific physical and psychological processes.
These NES infoceuticals are colloidal minerals in water that have quantum-level information imprinted on them. NES has developed a patented technology that opens up the matter wave of electrons and imprints this matter wave with photonic information. The matter wave is then returned to its original energy level.
3. Make expansive claims as to efficacy of device, material or procedure
Again, seemingly still at the experimental stage, the developers of the treatment will, for no readily apparent reason, assume that they can treat virtually anything. Here's an excerpt from the NES
The aspects of the human body-field that a screening reveals include: Major organ systems Environmental toxins Nutrition Musculoskeletal Emotional states Viruses/Bacteria Correction of these essential criteria can be vital in solving a wide range of complaints, including digestion, weight, muscular, nervous and skin problems as well as fatigue, headaches, and other health problems.
As we shall see shortly, these claims are often made prior to any kind of application for the ailments listed.
4. Sell service
Having developed the device/substance/treatment, you must then start actually doing the hard graft of treating people. You'll get some positive results, just by virtue of the fact that sometimes illnesses do just go away. These wins will lead to that favourite but relatively meaningless kind of evidence that all CAM practitioners love, testimonials. A few glowing letters later and you can drop all sorts of wonderful feedback into your adverts and websites.
"I started taking the Infoceuticals this morning and immediately felt things happening... the depression, or feeling that there is something awfully wrong with me, lifted in minutes"
"I especially have more energy and am experiencing continued improvement with chronic systemic conditions"
"a revolutionary way of creating a healing space not only for the very ill, but also for those who want to keep a good state of health ... I have gained a clarity, a detachment and an enthusiasm I had years ago and had lost due to years of ill health."
What will also start to happen is you'll start receiving some disappointing failures, and perhaps encounter one or two angry customers. These are doubly disheartening because they may even suggest that the device/substance/treatment you've just spent so much time and effort on might not actually work at all. Best to avoid all this trauma, which leads to the next phase...
5. Train others in using the service, making claims of experimental research
You've established that the treatment may not work. You may even have had a brush with people really counting on it working, and are rather annoyed that they're now out of pocket and health. You want to get out of treating people directly, but make good on your investment into the treatment. The best course of action, then, is to train other people to use the device/substance/treatment. You can sell them the equipment, and the education, then send them on their way.
If selling a treatment that may not, or does not, work isn't bad enough, now you are asking other people to invest in it too. You will provide them with the testimonials you've acquired, give them some glossy brochures, and get them to set up in business, spreading the word about the effective treatment you have invented. And perhaps you haven't told them that there isn't any clinical research. Perhaps you haven't told them that they won't be able to legally advertise their services anywhere.
After a while, you'll maybe find you have equally disgruntled customers from your training programs. Perhaps people you have sold your equipment to are turning around and telling you that the treatment doesn't work and they want their money back, a la the De La Warr case. So whatever can we do next?
6. Reduce claims
The most obvious thing to do is to go back to stage three with a red pen and run a line through anything except maybe the ailments that you suspect will be most sensitive to our old and over-hyped friend, the placebo effect. Suddenly your device cannot cure viral infections or organ failures, but it can have a fair crack at stress headaches. NES defended its literature in an ASA complaint with the following:
NES said they were still a young company and had not yet carried out clinical studies, although a double blind-study was planned to begin in February 2008. They said the first academically-sanctioned pilot study, carried out at Holos University, showed a statistically significant effect on how people coped with chronic stress after using the NES Infoceuticals.
7. Move claims to a place where no-one can see them
If you're really concerned about the previous claims you made about your device/substance/treatment, try and move them somewhere else entirely. Again, this is an approach the De La Warr's went for, stating they were curing potentiality of illness rather than the physical manifestations of the illness. Bit cheeky, though. No-one would try that today, would they?
NES asserted that they did not claim that the product had a direct cause-effect relationship with the body or disease, but rather that it affected only the energy and information of the body-field. They said their research suggested that by correcting the information and energy in the body-field, the body's own self-healing capabilities were naturally strengthened and the body could then correct itself.
So, NES posit the existence of the QED, then claim to cure issues with the QED which may or may not have a physical effect on the body the QED belongs to. Note also the above paragraph edges towards another favourite get out, the introduction of patient introspection. If it's going to work, you have to really want it to work! If it doesn't work, it's your fault. As Bio-Resonance Therapy says of its smoking cessation treatment, BRT can only cure you of your physical dependency; the psychological dependency is still there. We've given you a "head start" in quitting, but it's all down to you now. With NES the introspection is subtler still - we've strengthened the body's self-healing capabilities, but the body must still correct itself.
The greatest example of this, though, is our old friend L Ron Hubbard. He claimed that Dianetics could cure all sorts of ailments. He had the foresight to say it could cure any psychosomatic illnesses, which immediately allowed him the get out of saying that anything it didn't cure wasn't psychosomatic to begin with. However he made certain claims about Dianetics that could not so easily be explained away - Dianetics seeks to make someone "Clear", that is they they are clear of any "engrams", mind pictures created by the reactive mind that clouds our otherwise computer-like judgement. Hubbard claimed that a clear would have perfect memory and perfect eyesight. His public demonstration of the first clear failed on the memory count, and there are plenty of clears out there who rely on corrective glasses. This ultimately was explained away by Hubbard's suggestion that clears must next clear all the engrams from all of their past lives before they could reap the benefits. Dianetics didn't work, so he came up with Scientology instead.
8. Dig in
By now you will see yourself in charge of a probably useless branch of CAM, have a raft of users in the world at large, and a slow trickle of income from further training and sales. You've admitted, maybe publicly, that actually the treatment isn't really up to all that much, but you and your customers are still getting an increasing resource of testimonials, some of whom may even decide to sign up as practitioners themselves. All you can do now, unless you want to risk pursuing independent clinical trials (and, hey, why ask if it works, when the great question "why does it work" remains unasked?), is to dig your heels in. Attack anyone who criticises the treatment if you have the stomach for it, but you may find that there are enough converts to the cause willing to battle on your behalf that you won't ever need to get your hands dirty. The most important thing to do is to wait. Dianetics survived its initial public embarrassments; Radionics was ridiculed in a court of law in 1960, but is still around today; Virtual Scanning doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and as we've already noted, the older the treatment the more respectable and unquestioned it becomes; that testimonial snowball will just keep on growing.