Thursday, November 8, 2007

"Snake Oil Science"

R. Barker Bausell, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore, was Research Director of a National Institutes of Health-funded Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialized Research Center where he was in charge of conducting and analyzing randomized clinical trials involving acupuncture's effectiveness for pain relief. He has also served as a consultant to Prevention and Discover magazines.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new book Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Snake Oil Science (inset, below right; click to enlarge) happens to mark a chapter beginning and contains only 15 lines of text. In some ways the chapter itself (“Impediments that Prevent Poorly Trained Scientists from Making Valid Inferences”) marks a transition to the book’s main business, which is to answer the following question: “Is there any credible or plausible evidence to suggest that complementary and alternative (CAM) medical therapies are anything more than placebos?”

After giving a little background about CAM therapies and the placebo effect, the book’s first four chapters discuss how so many millions of intelligent people could be wrong about the effectiveness of these bizarre practices that we various term alternative, CAM, new age, integrative, and snake oil therapies. Chapter Five begins the task of actually looking at the scientific evidence, some of which is produced by credible scientists, some by poorly trained ones as suggested in the page 69 chapter heading, and some by the disingenuous intellectual ancestors of the original snake oil salesmen.

The bulk of the book’s remaining 226 pages, however, are given over to contrasting (1) the plausibility of the biological explanations for how placebos vs. the various CAM therapies work and (2) the credibility of the evidence that CAM therapies do have therapeutic effects over and above those attributed to the placebo effect. This presentation also provides the medium by which I have attempted to achieve my second purpose in writing this book: to educate the reader regarding how high quality scientific evidence is generated and can be evaluated in a completely non-technical manner.

I believe that anyone with even a passing interest in science will be fascinated by both the reviewed evidence and the logical process involved in determining if there is anything to acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, energy healing, and the hundreds of other CAM therapies presently on the market. For ultimately it is the poorly trained, disingenuous scientists alluded to on page 69, along with the media’s uncritical acceptance of these “scientists” interpretations of their research, which constitutes one of the primary reasons that so many intelligent people are wrong about the effectiveness of CAM therapies.
Learn more about Snake Oil Science at the Oxford University Press website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue