The Magazine

Doing Harm

The alternatives to medicine can be sickening.

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By TEMMA EHRENFELD
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

My mother, who admired Linus Pauling, kept three rows of bottles filled with vitamins and herbs in her kitchen, as well as stacks of newsletters with advice about “natural” remedies. She maintained an admirable figure on a low-fat, low-meat diet and enjoyed a full, happy life. So when she died of a rare cancer at 78, people were especially surprised. “It was all that chlorine at the pool,” one griever surmised. 

Jenny McCarthy at war with vaccination

Jenny McCarthy at war with vaccination

associated press

Despite my mother’s wide reading, I doubt that she knew about the many studies concluding that high doses of vitamins increase the risk of cancer. More than half of all Americans take vitamins—a $28 billion industry in 2010—and even unbelievers tend to think they are harmless. 

Do You Believe in Magic?—the charming title of which comes, of course, from the 1965 Lovin’ Spoonful song—is a fun read, a fast tour through stories about villains and crackpots. Linus Pauling is among them. Author Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, seems to subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, at least on this subject: He blames the American affection for mega-vitamins on Pauling and the craze for alternative cancer treatments on the Polish doctor Stanislaw Burzynski, aided by Gary Null. He also likes to follow the lobbyists (and the money), excoriating the supplements industry for winning exemption from regulation. 

By his lights, supplement-pushers are akin to the hucksters who sold Curry’s Cancer Cure (hydrogen peroxide, iodine, laxatives, and cocaine) or the Radio-Sulpho Cancer Cure (Epsom salts and Limburger cheese), not to mention John D. Rockefeller’s father, who sold “bogus cancer cures at county fairs with the help of magicians, hypnotists and ventriloquists.” 

Medical history is fascinating, even funny, when you’re not on the operating table. The author’s accounts of the origins and core principles of chiropractic, acupuncture, and homeopathy made me chortle; but this is serious business. The hint of agnosticism in the subtitle—nicely balancing “sense” and “nonsense”—is misleading: Offit is more like an angry atheist. Though he never sounds hostile, his true and persuasive message is that nonsense can be deadly and its purveyors need more policing. 

They feed on distrust of modern medicine, which leads even rich, clever people like the late Steve Jobs to put off, or reject, conventional medical treatments. Jobs opted for nine months of acupuncture, herbs, bowel cleansings, and fruit juice rather than early surgery for his tumor and thus “died of a treatable disease,” as Offit puts it. Distrust leads us into the arms of gurus who betray their profession while touting its credentials. 

Pauling is a sad case of brilliance succumbing to irrational belief in an ever-crazier spiral that led to his ultimate claims, despite much evidence, that high doses of vitamin C, combined with other supplements, could cure colds, treat cancer, and address just about any problem—including AIDS—without side-effects. How human it is to love cure-alls. Daniel Palmer, founder of chiropractic, believed that he had cured a man’s deafness by pushing down on the back of his neck to “realign his spine.” The nerve that conducts impulses from the ear to the brain doesn’t travel through the neck, but Palmer argued that misaligned spines cause all diseases. Bizarre as that sounds, chiropractic is covered by Obamacare. 

Dr. Offit offers six reasons for the appeal of unproven remedies. None of them is novel, but they are neatly summarized. The gurus of alternative medicine are definitive and comforting—they tell us how to live. In a world of doctors pressed for time, “healers” offer care that feels more sympathetic and individualized. Today’s gurus and healers claim to represent ancient wisdom from cultures that seem fuzzily superior to our own. (In China, for example, acupuncture “is embraced almost solely by the rural poor.”) By contrast, modern medicine is ever-changing, hence scary. Alternative medicine offers the sense that you can take control, that you don’t need scientists or doctors to tell you what to do. Finally, many Americans think that modern medicine has “rejected nature.”