Essay:List of CAM-free anecdotes
Many advocates of alternative medicine (also known as CAM, or Complementary and Alternative Medicine) rely on anecdotal evidence to "prove" the efficacy of whatever treatment they happen to believe in. They either take something and get better or read accounts of other people getting better, and assume that these improvements cannot occur naturally (in the case of diseases like cancer), or that the odds of a particular type of improvement happening is so low that it cannot possibly be a coincidence (such as being sick for many years and getting better soon (for a loose definition of "soon") after taking a supplement).
In the first case, it can be objected that even diseases that are almost always fatal can in rare cases get better (something known as spontaneous remission); in addition, even if one believes that such an event is so rare, it can't possibly be what's happening in a specific anecdote, there is also the fact that one can be misdiagnosed, and so treat a disease they don't actually have.
In the second case, it is the nature of statistics that unlikely things do inevitably happen, even if they are rare. If the odds of a given improvement happening is 0.1%, and the number of people who experienced it while taking an alternative treatment X is 5000 (and this number is much higher when you take all CAM therapies into account), then there will be at least 5 people who will experience it just by chance. If it is extremely unlikely for someone to win the lottery, that doesn't mean nobody does, simply because there are so many people who buy tickets. If someone takes something and does not get better, they forget about it (or die). If they get better, they take the opportunity to publicize this fact and broadcast it by real or digital word-of-mouth, leading to selection bias.
If someone with an illness undergoes an alternative therapy, there are 5 possibilities:
- They were misdiagnosed, so they never had the disease in the first place
- They get better as a result of the natural progression of the disease
- They get better temporarily as a result of the natural progression of the disease (which is all you hear about in the anecdote), but later down the road (perhaps many years after the anecdote's publication) they get worse and it is revealed that they were never "cured" at all
- They get better as a result of the treatment
- They get worse
A "successful" anecdote could belong to any of the first 4 categories, not just the "treatment worked" category, and so the anecdote fails to prove that the therapy actually works. Furthermore, many "unsuccessful" anecdotes are often conveniently withheld from the public.
The stories of recovery in this list belong to one of 4 categories, involving:
- Ill people who were untreated,
- Ill people who underwent treatments that are universally (or almost) considered quackery, even by modern-day CAM users
- Ill people who underwent science-based treatment and got better (these last sorts of anecdotes are included because CAM testimonials are often cited as proof of efficacy even when the CAM remedy was used in conjunction with conventional medicine)
- Anecdotes that don't belong to any of the previous 3 categories, but illustrate the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
- Michael Baum, a breast cancer oncologist, was in severe pain and was offered an acupuncture treatment. He didn't accept the offer, but the next day, his pain was gone completely.
- Mark Twain's mother frequently saw a faith-healer for her pain, to great effect. Her pain would often go away immediately as soon as the healer laid her hands on her. The said faith-healer, however, was an atheist who did not believe she had supernatural powers; she acknowledged that it was all a placebo.
- When sick with a cold, the author of this essay would take some herbal cough drops to soothe the pain of their sore throat. They worked. However, after the said person read up on the placebo effect and became more skeptical of alternative medicine in general, the cough drops failed to provide any pain relief whatsoever.
- Dr. Henry Beecher, during WWII, used saline solutions due to shortages of morphine, and they provided pain relief.
- One man had a vasectomy and was mistakenly injected with saline solution instead of anesthetic, but because of the placebo effect, he experienced pain relief anyway.
- Raymond Robinson, also known as the Green Man: was severely injured by a power line when he was eight; the doctors said he wouldn't live. He lived to be 74, albeit with a disfigured face.
- James Randi, as a teenager, was hit by a car while cycling. The doctors said he would never walk again. He did, after spending 13 months in a body cast.
- Jean Nicot's cook "nearly cut his thumb off" with a knife, but then "the steward ran for the tobacco plant and bound the thumb back on; after five or six dressings of the same sort, the wound healed."
- A teenager had melanoma that wouldn't respond to treatment. He was in a terminal group, but survived.
- "55-year-old Donna Molnar [...] left home in a snowstorm to pick up groceries. She was found three days later, in a field unable to move, under 60 centimetres of snow, slowly freezing. Her body temperature had fallen to 30 C. However, she did not suffer organ damage and made a recovery."
- "13-month-old Erika Nordby [...] crawled outside the family home in the middle of the night. The temperature was –24 C. By time she was found, her body temperature had tumbled to 16 C and her heart had stopped. It took a team of more than a dozen medical staff an hour and a half to get her heart beating again. Three days later, Erika was suffering from severe frostbite, but there were no signs of major physical injury or the brain damage that's expected in someone whose oxygen supply to the brain has been cut off, especially for that amount of time."
- Dr. Harriet Hall, M.D., a critic of alternative medicine, has not gotten a cold in 12 years, as of 2012.
- Many people who had had sores for 10 to 20 years got better after they rubbed some tobacco on them.
- A German tourist in China went to a pharmacy and bought some medicine for her eczema, thinking it was a traditional herbal remedy. Within a day, her eczema radically improved. However, her interpreter later found out that the boxes of medicine (which were written in Chinese) actually contained hydrocortisone. Makes you wonder how many testimonials could be the result of mix-ups like these.
- A guy in a coma woke up after undergoing bloodletting in which he lost "twelve ounces of blood".
- One man woke up in pain so severe he couldn't get up. A doctor was sent for, who diagnosed him with malaria and prescribed some pills. The next day, his symptoms were gone completely; he never had malaria in the first place. He remarked, "Guess I must have just been tired." If, instead, he had taken a homeopathic remedy, he would have (erroneously) thought it was responsible for his recovery.
- A boy with smallpox recovered after being bled and losing "fifty ounces of blood".
- Louis XIV's smallpox got better after he was bled five times.
- Several pregnant women with yellow fever got better after being bled as much as 16 times.
- One man infected with the plague treated his disease with tobacco, and was cured. This man also said that "almost all those houses, where tobacco was sold, both in Spires ... and likewise in London, were never infected, whereas the houses round about them were."
- A six-week old baby was accidentally poisoned with laudanum. After some bloodletting, she recovered.
- Jeanne Calment, the person with the longest confirmed lifespan, smoked for most of her life and did not get cancer. She lived to be 122.
- Jean Sibelius was a smoker and drinker for most of his life. He lived to be 91. He once said, "All the doctors who wanted to forbid me to smoke and to drink are dead."
- A woman's diabetes went away completely, with no treatment, shortly after she woke up from a coma.
- One healthy girl became seriously ill and died shortly after eating fruit with milk. Because of stories like these, there are numerous people who believe it is dangerous to eat fruit and milk at the same time. Of course, just because the girl died after eating fruit with milk doesn't mean she died because of it. After all, everybody, before becoming seriously ill, has to have eaten something. You could find similar cases for virtually any food (or combination of foods).
- Richard Dawkins and Michael Baum talk about alternative medicine
- Christian Science
- The Powerful Placebo.
- Harriet Hall, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon, quoted in Acupuncture, Skepdic.
- The Amazing Randi, by Patricia Orwen, The Toronto Star Aug 23, 1986.
- Medicinal uses of tobacco in history, Anne Charlton, J R Soc Med. 2004 June; 97(6): 292–296. PMCID: PMC1079499.
- Spontaneous Regression of Melanoma May Offer Insight Into Cancer Immunology, Carrie Printz, JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (2001) 93 (14): 1047-1048.
- Hypothermia: a killing cold, CBC News, Jan 18, 2011.
- Comment on Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book, Science-Based Medicine.
- Of the Tabaco and of His Greate Vertues
- Found in Translation, Natally Kelly and Jost Zetzsche, pages 90-91.
- A Defence of Blood-letting, as a Remedy for Certain Diseases
- Langston Hughes, I Wonder As I Wander, Chapter I.
- Berthold Laufer, Introduction of tobacco into Europe.
- The Rest Is Noise: Sibelius: Apparition from the Woods
- Spontaneous Remission of Diabetes, R. B. Haining and R. G. Haining.
- Daniel Everett, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.