Do You Believe in Magic?
Dr. Paul A. Offit’s book Do you Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine examines the $34-billion-a-year business known as alternative medicine. Dr. Offit is chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and a vocal advocate for immunizations.
Dr. Offit understands the allure of alternative medicine and begins with the story of his own disappointing experiences utilizing the modern healthcare system. He gets multiple incorrect diagnoses, including one which led him to believe he was dying from a fatal illness for two years. In another incident, he awoke from what he had been assured would be minor knee surgery to learn that it had been a major surgery which would take a year to recover from. Offit says, “the miscalculation didn’t seem to surprise or upset the orthopedist. But it upset me.” Through misadventures and mixed advice, Offit looks into the chasm between modern and alternative medicine.
Offit argues that the popularity of media celebrities who promote alternative therapies, such as Dr. Mehmet Oz, comes from their offer of “an instruction book for something that doesn’t come with instructions: life.” These superstars, as he calls them, claim that following their advice will enable you to live longer, love better, and raise happier children. Who doesn’t want the playbook for how to live life? Unfortunately, this playbook is often full of medicine that doesn’t work.
One chapter is dedicated to the myth that vaccines cause autism, a belief propagated by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy. Offit doesn’t fault parents for searching for a cause for their child’s autism. He understands how easy it is for parents to believe in untested theories and describes how the unfounded fear of vaccines has allowed a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States and incited parents to fear vaccines more than the diseases they prevent.
Part of the appeal of alternative medicine is that it is personalized. Offit acknowledges that modern medicine often leaves a patient feeling more like a number than an individual. He recognizes how the fluidity of modern medicine can be unsettling, highlighting that many alternative medicines have remained unchanged for hundreds even thousands of years, which begs the question: Haven’t we increased our knowledge of human anatomy and disease over these years?
The continual evolution of modern medicine should be comforting. We are constantly learning and applying that knowledge to medicine, which in turn adapts – resulting in new and changing treatments and recommendations.
Paul Offit is a supporter of medicine that works – he does not discriminate against type of medicine, whether alternative or conventional, he only distinguishes between medicine that can be proven to work and medicine that only pretends. Offit argues that proper evaluation of all medicine is paramount. With over 40 pages of notes and selected bibliography, Offit uses the platinum standard in scientific reasoning—a case-control study—to make his point. If the treatment proves to make a difference in comparison to its control than he simply calls it medicine that works. Summing up the timely takeaway message of the book, he writes:
“Although conventional therapies can be disappointing, alternative therapies shouldn’t be given a free pass. I learned that all therapies should be held to the same high standard of proof; otherwise we’ll continue to be hoodwinked by healers who ask us to believe in them rather than in the science that fails to support their claims. And it’ll happen when we’re most vulnerable, most willing to spend whatever it takes for the promise of a cure.”