Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Snake Oil Science, R. Barker Bausell

Title: Snake Oil Science
Author: R. Barker Bausell
Rating: Good

If you have any interest in alternative medicine, or any belief that it might be real, this is something you should read.

Bausell is a biostatistician - a specialist in looking at the math behind scientific studies of medical treatments - and he spent time doing that for CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) for the NIH, among other things.

In this book he spends a lot of time going over how science is (or should be) done, and documenting exactly what the placebo effect is and at least partly how it actually works.  Then he goes on a quest to find good science showing that any kind of CAM therapy works.

Not to give it away, but from the title you've probably guessed it: he finds essentially nothing.  The few positive studies have all kinds of issues - of the sort that Bausell is an expert in identifying - and the result is that they fall in the noise category.  If you use TCM, acupuncture, chiropractic, chelation, various herbal remedies, and so on, it turns out the evidence says all you're getting is the placebo effect, nothing more.

I would give this book a top mark review but I suspect it could have been edited down just a bit, to avoid it dragging in a couple of places.  The content is great, though.  No problems there.

I am sad to say, though, that most of those who need to read it won't.  Those who believe in CAM aren't usually open to the idea that it's a sham.

Oh... and for those who might not have heard it before, here's a related joke:

Q: What do you call and alternative medical therapy that actually works?
A: Medicine.