10 Clues that “Alternative” Might Mean “Invalid”

By Janet Factor

When the Ithaca Journal began its “Alternative Ithaca” series, I turned to it eagerly, hoping to find stories of local residents trying out innovative solutions to life. I expected perhaps to read of people whose homes depended only on solar power, or who practiced sustainable farming. Instead, disappointingly, the Journal has chosen to profile a collection of persons who advocate unproven methods of health care. Moreover, it has done so without subjecting their claims to scrutiny, reprinting their statements without question, as though they were factual.

This raises questions of journalistic responsibility. Should not readers be able to assume that statements presented in an article, if not clearly labelled as opinion, have been verified? It is especially important that young readers, whose only information about the wider world often comes from the newspaper on the kitchen table, not be confused about what is or is not known to be true.

The Journal must not allow concerns about community feelings to deter it from its responsibility in this regard. Alternative health care practitioners are not just adhering to private belief systems. They are making claims and undertaking actions that affect others. However positive their motivations, those who would take the health and happiness of fellow human beings into their hands have a special obligation to respect the truth, and they should be held to it.

Until the Journal does this, readers will have to take up the task. Accordingly, I offer the following as some assistance in sorting the wheat from the chaff in these matters.


1. Claims are grandiose and vague.

“Reiki works on animals, plants, and people,” Avery said. “It can be used to heal physically, spiritually, and emotionally.” Sounds great, means what exactly?

2. Escape clause included.

“Healing depends totally on the client… there is no guarantee that [they] will accept the energy or use it in the right way.” (Spears) Credit for success is taken, but blame for failure refused.

3. Reliance on anecdotes; avoidance of scientific testing.

Personal stories can be persuasive, but they are only the beginning, not the end, of serious inquiry. Spear’s claim to tune instruments without touching them could easily be verified or disproved by laboratory sound analysis. Why hasn’t it been?

4. Over-elaborate explanations.

Why not attribute the real health benefits of Tai Chi (which I practice myself) to the performance of disciplined physical exercise? Why drag Taoism into it?

5. Psuedo-scientific jargon.

“Harmonic induction” sounds impressive, but consult a scientific reference and you will find that it is meaningless.

6. Logical implications ignored.

Spears claims to send out harmonic energy to “tune” her clients. Yet waves of energy spread out and weaken over distance; think of the radio station fading out as you drive away. Shouldn’t it be difficult, if not impossible, for her to heal at a distance, rather than easy, as she claims?

7. Discredited ideas repackaged.

Reiki, chi, and prana are just foreign terms for the old “vital spark” (think Frankenstein). Homeopathy’s”like cures like” is nothing but sympathetic magic, the belief that things that closely resemble one another can affect one another. The same logic underlies voodoo dolls.

8. Focus on charismatic personalities.

“Her [Avery’s] presence is just so soothing, calming, and relaxing.” A legitimate technique will work no matter who uses it. The laws of nature apply to us all. If the healer must charm the client, benefits are likely psychosomatic.

9. Unequal investment: much more is demanded of client than practitioner.

While many of us think that the prices charged by drug companies are excessive, at least they have legitimate expenses, including testing for efficacy. What is the profit margin of somebody who claims to cure you by thinking about it, or on a tiny vial of pure distilled water sold as a homeopathic remedy?

10. Claims flatly defy common sense.

Cures by e-mail? This falls in the category of not keeping your mind so open your brains fall out.

No one of these clues is enough to declare a practice invalid. But when you encounter several of them from the same source, it is wise to doubt that source’s reliability. Before you trust your health to another’s beliefs, it is legitimate to question whether those beliefs, however sincere, have any basis in reality. It is, after all, in the real, material world that suffering and illness occur. If it were really possible to think ourselves out of it, wouldn’t more of us do so?

Janet Factor, formerly of Ithaca, New York, now lives in Springfield, Illinois.

Originally published in 2003.

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