Alternative Medicine and the Appropriation of Scientific Discourse

by Steve Mizrach

The Cases of Homeopathy and Radionics


The relationship between 'alternative' and 'orthodox' medicine is problematic, much as is the relation between much of 'parascience' and 'mainstream' science. This is because alternative medicine often simultaneously 1) attacks scientific biomedicine or even, occasionally, the scientific method while 2) borrowing the rhetoric or appearance of science in order to increase its prestige. The philosophy of science suggests that disciplines which pretend to be science while deliberately violating or repudiating the scientific method are thought of as pseudoscience , but the applicability of this term to all types of alternative medicine is not entirely clear. Based on this criterion, it could certainly be applied to some concepts or practices firmly within the realm of accepted or 'mainstream' medicine.

It is important to deal with the concept of scientific 'marginality' - to examine fields on the periphery of accepted science, such as UFOlogy, parapsychology, or cryptozoology. These fields are generally thought of as containing 'rejected knowledge' since a) the existence of their research object is disputed and b) they are thought to violate proper research protocols, and are called 'deviant sciences,' although it is not always clear what norms they are deviating from[1]. (Robert K. Merton's?) However, just as knowledge is a social construct, knowledge rejection is a social process, and needs to be understood in sociological terms. In order to deal with their 'marginality,' many of these fields borrow scientific trappings so that the establishment will take them seriously, regardless of how scientific they have actually attempted to become. "In general," notes one author, "those deviant systems of belief which compete with orthodoxies thrive best if they claim to have their own scientific basis."[2]

While it is generally thought that the founders of alternative medical systems are 'marginal' themselves, this claim does not stand under scrutiny. It will also be argued that 'orthodox' biomedicine also started out as a heterodox, mystical sect, and that perhaps some of its defensiveness with regards to its 'scientificity' could be understood in that light. The process of appropriating scientific discourse can be seen to be occurring with 'neo-traditional' medical systems as well, providing an interesting parallel to the processes at work in alternative medicine. Why this is happening is due to the prevailing influence of scientism . Since the authority and status of science goes relatively unchallenged by society, it will be argued, it is inevitable that 'alternative' disciplines will continue to borrow the language and appearance of science.

Alternative medical systems could accept the label of being "unscientific" without fear, but the fact that they do not shows the pervasiveness of the idea of scientism. They have the potential to make a direct challenge to this ideology, but they do not. Rather than challenging scientism, or becoming more faithful to the scientific method, alternative medicine has chosen to merely appropriate the discourse of science. The cases of the alternative medical disciplines of homeopathy and radionics will be examined as examples of how and why this process is taking place.

Definition of Terms

Scientism and the Discourse of Science

The origins of (Western) science lie in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. This event was connected in many ways with other ongoing 'revolutions' - the Protestant Reformation, the rise of mercantile capitalism, the Enlightenment, and the dawning of the Industrial Revolution. During the Enlightenment, there developed a sincere belief that reason would now come to govern human affairs, thereby replacing "superstition and sentiment." This led people to think that perhaps rational scientific authority would come to supplant 'arbitrary' religious and political authority, and that all that was needed to achieve human liberation was to conquer 'irrationality,' ignorance, and lack of education. This doctrine is what Foucault calls the episteme of the Enlightenment.

Comte advanced in his doctrine of positivism the idea that humanity, having passed through ages of increasing knowledge, had now reached the culminatory epoch, where governance would be by scientific and technical experts rather than arbitrary elites. The success of science in so many domains sincerely led people to believe that it might solve many of the problems that beset society. By the 19th century, the notions of progress, social advancement, and scientific discovery were firmly linked. Even before the rise of Big Science after World War II, science was already starting to have a great influence on the State, which increasingly relied on scientific expertise for pressing questions of policy and statecraft, and on technology for intelligence and national defense.

Scientism is, then, the doctrine that science has a greater ability than any other human endeavor (art, religion, philosophy, whatever) for the resolution of disputes and questions; and that science has a special privileged status. (Most Marxists generally believe that science, unlike other forms of 'false' knowledge, belongs in the infrastructure, since it emerges directly from the material 'base,' rather than being mediated through culture, society, or ideology.) Under the doctrine of scientism, science is the ultimate authority for answering questions, and such things as rationality, reality, and truth are thought to be singular and singularly possessed by scientific inquiry - any deviation being clearly 'irrational' rather than exemplifying a different rationality.

One of the ends of science is finalization - the striving for the unification and completion of all knowledge. Scientists search for general laws which are thought to be applicable in solving all incidental problems and applications[4]. Although many philosophers of science who follow Karl Popper deny this model of science, it is the one that frequently prevails in the public mind, and it can be seen in fields such as physics which look for grand unifying schemes (GUTs). It is one of the reasons that science carries so much 'symbolic capital' (using the term as Bourdieu does to refer to "linguistic efficacy"). Another reason is that science employs professionalized jargon, to emphasize perceptions of technical expertise and competency.

Despite science's apparent antiauthoritarian origins (many of us are familiar with the story of the brave heretic Galileo confronting the dogmatic Church with his discoveries), it nonetheless deploys authoritarian structures for the evaluation of knowledge. Science possesses five practical types of authority: political, formal-professional, collegial-elite, patronage, and authorship. It utilizes a discursive space (scientific journals, symposia and conferences, scientific honors organizations, etc.) which maintains the boundaries between 'insiders' and 'outsiders,' but the 'outsiders' seek to imitate this space in order to try and 'borrow' some of the 'symbolic capital' and prestige commanded by science. Since scientism guarantees the authority and power of science, it is inevitable that extrascientific fields will seek to appropriate some of that authority as well.

The Origins of "Scientific" Biomedicine

Today, most historians of medicine recognize that the origins of scientific 'medicine' began with Paracelsus, who was both physician and 'magician,' being firmly steeped in the Hermetic/'natural magic' millieu of his time. Paracelsus' doctrine of iatrochemistry was a direct challenge to the Scholastic establishment of his time, which had enshrined the theories of the Hellenistic physician Galen with regard to the existence of 'humors' in the body and the maintenance of a balance among those humors. Paracelsus' doctrine was also essentially alchemical and astrological in nature: he maintained that each organ in the body was linked to a particular celestial body (stars, planets, comets, etc.), and that the influence of that celestial body was in turn mediated by a particular terrestrial substance (mercury, sulphur, gold, silver, etc.) He further advanced William Harvey's idea of the circulation of the blood, but this was largely because he envisioned the body as a solar system in miniature (microcosm) with the heart as its central 'sun.'[5]

Paracelsus' system was largely derived from the English Chemical Philosophy as exemplified by Robert Boyle, that the body consists of a mixture (composite) of solutions, and had rejected the Mechanical Philosophy of the Continent, which saw the human body as a repairable machine or engine consisting of moving parts. Another influence on Paracelsus was the idea of 'animal magnetism' or 'nervous spirits' which was prevalent in Europe. While biomedicine today is very different from Paracelsus' original schema, his iatrochemical principle still lies at the basis of allopathy: diseases are to be treated through the introduction of chemical substances, rather than attempting to restore some sort of pre-existing harmony in the body. Like alternative medicine, biomedicine has its roots in a small mystical sect that challenged the establishment of its time.

In the U.S., Paracelsus' system eventually became 'heroic' medicine, as formulated by Benjamin Rush and others. 'Heroic' medicine was so known for its rather aggressive use of lancing, bloodletting, leeches, and virulent poisons. 'Heroic' medicine faced many competitors in the U.S.; homeopathy in part arose as a corrective to the dangerous excesses of heroic medicine. Heroic medicine was not very well respected, but unlike its contempory challengers, it committed itself to utilizing the new scientific discoveries of the period, including the discovery of microscopic organisms causing disease (the germ theory.) In time, through a process of reform, 'scientization,' and centralization, heroic medicine would become allopathic biomedicine, and the dominant Western medical system. Even still, Lewis Thomas and others recognize that biomedicine remains "the youngest science."

In order to understand the disputes between 'orthodox' and 'alternative' medicine, one needs to consider the problem as resulting from what the medical historian Harris L. Coulter calls a "Divided Legacy" in medicine stemming back for perhaps 2000 years - a continual conflict and give-and-take of what he calls Empirical and Rationalist approaches[6]. Coulter sees Emprical medicine as being based in induction through direct, concrete observation and experimentation, whereas Rationalist medicine is essentially deductive, searching for logical, abstract, a priori procedures for dealing with disease. Homeopathy, he suggests, is Empirical, based as it is on a careful elicitation of a patient's entire life history and a drawing upon of the doctor's own experience; whereas biomedicine is Rationalist, assuming that the doctor can treat the problems of the patient through his training and a formal, logical, procedural method.

Coulter notes that, over time, as healing ways become more professionalized and systematized, they face pressure to become less Empiricist and more Rationalist. He suggests that allopathy started out as a more Empirical system, but that various forces, especially efforts to professionalize (the Flexner Report creating a standardized curriculum for medical education and establishing the central role of the AMA), resulted in it moving over to the Rationalist axis. Coulter points out that as alternative medical systems like homeopathy try to emulate the success of allopathy, they inevitably face the dilemma of losing their Empirical foundations. By emulating the discourse of the establishment, they are also going to eventually end up joining it, which may result in some new yet unforeseen Empirical challenge to their "pointy-headed" authority.

'Traditional' Medical Systems Appropriating Science Discourse

In order to gain insight into how alternative medical practices are appropriating 'scientific' discourse, it is useful to look at how similar processes are at work with systems of 'neo-traditional' medicine. Brujeros, curanderos, shamans, medicine men, 'witch doctors,' folk healers, midwives, ayurvedists, and so forth are also under pressure to professionalize their disciplines, largely due to interactions with the WHO (World Health Organization) and biomedical practicioners in their own country[7]. We can see various ways in which folk or ethno-medicines are being reinterpreted so as to make them seem to have a 'scientific' basis which is satisfactory for Westerners. This seems to be happening especially with people seeking to bring 'traditional' medicine from the periphery/Fourth World to the core/First World. Looking at a few examples can illustrate this; the case of acupuncture perhaps being the best one.

Though only introduced to Western doctors in the 1970s, acupuncture was practiced in China for more than 2000 years, and it was part and parcel of a complex Chinese cosmology, interlinked with other Chinese cultural systems (macrobiotics, feng shui or geomancy, Taoism, the I Ching, moxibustion and acupressure, etc.) The Chinese had their own ethnotheoretical explanations for how acupuncture worked (involving the flow of ch'i along the body's meridians.) However, Western doctors rejected these explanations, since they felt these concepts were 'unscientific,' and chose to use acupuncture solely for anaesthesia, claiming it only worked because of the influence it had on "opiate channels" in the brain[8]. This was despite the fact that acupuncture had been used to treat all kinds of illnesses, as well as for relief from pain, in its native context.

Western scientific medicine simply chose to isolate acupuncture from its context, and to reframe it in mechanistic, biomedical terms. This at least was a step above suggesting it operated solely through the placebo effect. Similar processes have been at work in transforming old 'folk' practices into new professionalized ones. Herbalism became 'naturopathy,' moving away from its folk basis in trial and error. And even today herbalists are under increasing pressure to provide the 'scientific basis' for the efficacy of their products. The folk practice of oneiromancy - the reading of a person's dreams to determine 'what ails their soul' - has today been turned into "dream therapy" by Freud and other psychologists. The sophisticated-sounded technique of "biofeedback" is really nothing but a reformulation of age-old practices of Hindu and Tantric Yoga and meditation, Westernized through the addition of electronic readouts.

It is not just that Western doctors are taking ethnomedical systems and reframing them in biomedical terms. Ethnomedical practicioners are sometimes simply transforming their own indigenous systems so that they can be understood by Western audiences; this, they think, will enable them to work with biomedical professionals and make the case for their healing ways to a biomedical audience. The term "Neo-traditional" suggests that many supposedly 'pristine' 'traditional' systems have already been transformed in such a way; it is highly doubtful that the Ayurvedic medicine of 20th century India remains exactly the same as that of 9th century India. Many traditional medical healers now make referrals of their clients to allopathic doctors when they cannot deal with an illness; others have already integrated certain biomedical procedures (esp. with regards to sanitation and hygiene) into their indigenous practice.

Rather than attempting to understand and translate the emic meanings that undergird various ethnomedicines, Western biomedicine often simply absorbs them by reframing them in biomedical terminology. They are only accepted if they are purged of their original cultural context and adapted for biomedical deployment (e.g. moved into hospitals.) 'Traditional' medicines seek to compete with biomedicine in the global health market, and in order to do so, they copy its institutions and trappings (clothes, buildings, etc.), regardless of whether this is appropriate for their native context or not. As I will demonstrate, this is what is happening with alternative medicines as well.

The Scientific Credentials of Alternative Medicine Founders

A common stereotype of the founders of alternative medical systems is that they are "quacks" - basically uneducated and untrained, out for a quick buck, and occupying a 'marginal' place within society. They are thought often to be "cranks" - people who have an axe to grind against the "system" because they could not succeed at it. An examination of the founding figures of most alternative medical systems would show just how incorrect this stereotype actually is. In many cases, alternative medical founders are people whose careers begain in the 'mainstream' medicine of their time. This is particularly illustrative in the cases of homeopathy and radionics.

Samuel Hahnemann, the "Father" of Homeopathy, studied medicine in Liepzig, Germany, apprenticing himself to a court physician, Dr. Josef van Quarin. He worked to support himself while studying, by translating texts in eight languages (he was reported to have a prodigious memory) and working as a librarian in Transylvania. He got his doctorate in medicine from the University of Erlangen in 1779. Hahnemann acted as a royal physician to Prince Karl Phillip von Schwarzenberg, and other members of the nobility. He translated Willam Cullen's Treatise of the Materia Medica in 1790, and in 1796 established the two foundational principles of homeopathy in an essay that he wrote.

Dr. Albert Abrams, the "Father" of Radionics, was the son of a wealthy 19th century San Francisco businessman. He studied medicine at the University of Heidelberg in Germany (which was a hotbed of 'Rosicrucian' heresy only two centuries earlier), and received top honors and the gold medal. He then went on to teach pathology at Stanford, where he became the director of medical studies. It was there that he first saw the 'oscilloclast' of Dr. Guyon Richards, which gave him the idea for his famous 'black box.' (Abrams claimed that his concept of resonance in part derived from the time he saw the singer Enrico Caruso tap a glass in order to make it vibrate, and then shattered it with the tone of his voice.)

Like any doctrine, radionics had prophets as well as a founder. Some of the people who helped create the Radionics and Magnetic Research Centre in Oxford included T. Galen Hieronymus, David Tansley, Malcolm Rae, and Dr. Ruth Drown. Drown was a young LA chiropractor who tried to refine Abrams' devices. Her efforts eventually ended up having the FDA confiscate her equipment, throw her in jail, and put an "expose'" in Life magazine in the 1940s. Another person involved in creating radionics was George de la Warr, who was distantly related to the Delawarr family that first settled the American state of Delaware. De la Warr, a wealthy socialite, was hardly 'marginal' in any sense of the word.

Radionics also derives from other figures indirectly, such as the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, the Yale biologist Harold Saxton Burr, and others who have promoted or investigated the idea of a human energy field. Reich's career is perhaps the most interesting; he came over to the U.S. preaching that the key to physical health was better orgasms, and died proclaiming that UFOs from space were stealing away Earth's vital energy. Like Drown, he found his equipment (the so-called "orgone boxes") destroyed or confiscated by the FDA, and he died in jail. (Today his Institute of Orgonomy survives in Rangeley, Maine.) Although perhaps paranoid and secretive, Reich was one of Freud's most well-known followers, and travelled in influential circles. Like Abrams and Hahnemann, he had 'standard' medical training, and was hardly socially marginal.

Homeopathy and Scientific Discourse

At first glance, it seems that homeopathy is basically based on 'magical' principles. One of Frazier's Laws of primitive "magic" elaborated in The Golden Bough is the Law of Sympathy: "like affects like"- one can affect something else by manipulating an object which is similar to it or partakes of a similar 'nature.' It might be that Hahnemann's doctrine is, in fact, simply a form of sympathetic magic. Despite the fact that homeopathy appears essentially to be 'magical,' it has taken great pains to appropriate scientific discourse and perhaps "sympathetically" steal some of the apparent magical vitality of science. As I have suggested, in a society where scientism is a dominant norm, it is not surprising to see 'marginal' or 'deviant' systems like homeopathy seeking to imitate the language and appearance of 'scientific' biomedicine.

Homeopaths have used all sorts of techniques to win what they feel is well-deserved scientific credibility for their discipline. Some of them have tried to do double-blind studies of homeopathy's effectiveness, with varying degrees of success. Most have relied on patient testimonials. But, for the most part, they have done this by making what they do seem scientific by using scientistic jargon to explain it. One of the classic examples of this was the 'molecular memory of water' experiments investigated by the journal Nature in 1988. Basically, a French laboratory sought to investigate if water might somehow 'remember' compounds which were mixed into it and then diluted out[9]. This might, of course, provide a 'scientific' basis for the Law of Succussion, which as some scientists point out, leads to scientific absurdity, since as one put it, "the most effective remedy might be to take a drop of the stuff and then mix it into Lake Erie."[10]

This particular lab, whose work was sponsored by French homeopaths, claimed that the experiments were a success: that even after no molecules of the original substance were present, water would act as if the substance's properties were still active. When other labs failed to duplicate this result, this experiment attracted the attention of CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.) CSICOP basically "broke" into the lab, accused the experimenters of fraud, and then had Nature write a piece discrediting this avenue of research. It was very reminiscent of the later "Cold Fusion" episode. Homeopaths tried to make their practice seem more 'scientific,' and only succeeded in drawing down the wrath of the 'science police,' CSICOP.

Hahnemann created his own Materia Medica for homeopathy, based on his many 'provings' of substances, figuring that if allopathy could have a pharmacoepia, so could his system. Homeopaths treat the Materia Medica as the "DSM-III' of their field. Since that time, they have appealed to all sorts of concepts to give their practice a 'scientific' seeming basis. Some claim that homeopathy works because of undiscovered principles of immunology - that homeopathic remedies somehow stimulate 'natural' defenses otherwise unmobilized within the body. Others claim that homeopathy works because it essentially influences the body's "electro-dynamic field," a conception also found in radionics. Still others appeal to the 'flocculation' experiments (the "Henshaw" or Serum Sensitivity test) which they claim manifest certain effects in the "cellular environment" not otherwise visible in the single cell.

Homeopaths have generally shown an aversion to the statistical approach of biomedicine. Since they treat far fewer patients, they usually appeal to client testimonials as evidence of efficacy. They have of late toned down their attacks against allopathy, now claiming that their practice 'complements' rather than 'supplants' allopathic treatment. Many homeopathic offices now have sophisticated looking instruments in them (of varying degrees of functionality), which are now said to assist the homeopath in what is still basically a very personal form of diagnosis. A great number of homeopaths now use computers for "repertorizing" or assembling and inventorying symptomatologies, attempting to demonstrate that they have no aversion to science and technology.

In addition to creating its own set of unique technical neologisms - miasma, potentiation , etc. - homeopathy also has established its own colleges of homeopathic medical instruction, and attempted to create greater degrees of self-regulation within the discipline. Homeopaths try and sponsor their own quasi-academic conferences, linking homeopathic theorists with Jungian psychologists, quantum physicists, and, of course, medical anthropologists. They even have their own official homeopathic medical journals. Many of them write for popular medical audiences, seeking to undermine the credibility of allopathy by posing seemingly 'scientific' critiques. All these efforts represent attempts to imitate scientific discourse.

Radionics and Scientific Discourse

Like homeopathy, radionics also appears on first glance to be derived from another of Frazier's magical laws - the Law of Contagion, which suggests that an item that belongs to or is in contact with a person can be used to influence that person at a distance: the so-called "voodoo fetish." Radionic medical practicioners believe that one can take a sample of blood or tissue from a human being, obtain a vibratory 'reading' from it, and then use that sample to cure the person at a distance - even from miles away. In some ways, radionics is really just a more sophisticated form of older folk practices - particularly that of dowsing, which has always involved more than just divining for water with a forked twig.

Many dowsers (also called radiesthetists ) claim that they can dowse with pendulums or maps, and that they can dowse for health. Abrams maintained that the radionic talent lies in the practicioner, not in the instrument they use, so it is very much like a form of dowsing. Before he came up with the "Black Box," Abrams tried to obtain diagnoses by percussing the body and manually feeling the ensuing vibrations. Basically, the radionic "Black Box" contains a small bar magnet that can be rotated by a series of dials and a small well in which is placed the "witness," or tissue from the patient. Inside the box is also a membrane which is supposed to turn adhesive in response to questions about the patient. The radionicist is supposed to turn the dials (which are numbered from 0 to 9) until he gets a positive 'reading' (anywhere from 0000000 to 9999999) from the 'witness,' at which point he knows he has obtained its resonance or vibratory rate.

Of course, Abrams' critics maintained from the very beginning that the "Box" was a magical fetish - it basically did nothing at all, but it was an impressive-looking electronic device that heightens the expectations of the patient. Certainly, Drown and others did their best to make the Box look as technologically impressive as possible, regardless of how technically simple it was to operate. Practicioners of radionics say their discipline works because each human has a distinctive aura or "life field." Attempts to verify the existence of this human energy field have ranged from Kilner's coal lenses to Reichenbach's use of "sensitives" to Kirlian's electrical discharge photography. Most radionic texts describe this human energy field in very complex terms - its "layers," "chakras," zones," etc. - but generally fail to explain just how the topography of it was determined. Many of them claim that their concept is exactly identical to the Chinese notion of ch'i - which in reality it is not.

Radionicists (psionic doctors?) also maintain the doctrine that each substance has a unique vibrational rate, and claim that quantum physics supports their position. (It does not, and in many ways this idea is a rephrasing of the magical "Doctrine of Signatures" often found in medieval grimoires.) They appeal to often 'marginal' or 'deviant' scientific explorations of bioelectromagnetism, such as Lakhovsky's "cellular oscillation" theory, or Gurwitsch's claim of "mitogenic radiation," neither of which have been verified. Some even express their doctrine in cybernetic terms, using the now trendy metaphor of looking at the human body as an electronic information transceiver. Many refer to the work of the physician Robert O. Becker, who has done extensive studies of bioelectricity and its role in healing and self-regulation[11].

Though radionics is, in effect, a form of "psychic healing," they try and minimize the fact that it is supposedly the "talent" of the radionic practicioner which obtains the result, and nothing intriniscally technological or instrumental. They naturalize this "talent," so as to take it out of the realm of parapsychology, claiming (like the faculty for dowsing) that it is universally human - basically part of each human being's innate electromagnetic sense. (Experiments have determined that humans do have small traces of magnetite in the cortex, and can in fact 'sense' magnetic north.) They use the term "psychotronics," to suggest that this faculty can be controlled with scientific precision and accuracy; this sounds much better than "sixth sense" or "ESP."

Other radionic practicioners point to the use of "radionic pesticides" in killing crop pests, to show that radionics is even used in (organic) agriculture; and how "radionic holism" ("holomatrix theory") is just a reflection of the so-called "holographic paradigm" of neurology and other sciences. Radionicists often cite various journals of 'fringe' science (such as the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation), which also generally discuss such things as Tesla machines, free energy, perpetual motion, psychotronics, and antigravity. They have attempted to come up with mathematic schemas for their system of comparative vibrational analysis which are almost beautifully Pythagorean in scope. Like its 'sister' practice, homeopathy, radionics may or may not have much scientific basis, but it is incorporating scientific discourse as rapidly as it can.

The Twelve Dimensions of Healing

In any healing way, there are twelve dimensions which can be used to evaluate it[12]. It is an interesting exercise to see how allopathy compares with "alternative" systems in this regard.

  1. DIAGNOSIS: How are symptoms evaluated? In allopathy, there is a use of questioning, testing, and physical observation. Alternative medical techniques may emphasize the former over the others, or use other methods altogether.
  2. CAUSE OF DISEASE: What is held responsible for the disease? Allopathy usually searches for some malignant biotic agent (tumor, bacterium, virus, etc.) Other systems may look for 'miasmas,' 'energy blockages,' and other things which are nonphysical.
  3. CLIENTS' BEHAVIOR: How is the condition related to the behavior of the client? Is behavioral change part of the cure? In allopathy, the client is expected to maintain preventive behavior with regards to diet, exercise, etc. and to use sound health practices to keep from getting sick. Alternative medicines often see the patient's behavior as part and parcel of the treatment process.
  4. GOAL: Is the goal for a total elimination or partial negation of the cause of the disease? Is it maintenance or restoration of health, or merely the reduction of deterioration? Is it the alleviation of symptoms, or their temporary suppression? Allopathy deploys a wide variety of goals, but the primary one is the elimination of disease cause. This is not always the case in alternative systems.
  5. TREATMENT: What procedures are utilized to attain the goal? In allopathy, the use of surgery and drugs are the primary methods. Other techniques involve all sorts of other treatments, ranging from colored lights to body manipulation.
  6. PROGNOSIS: How is progress toward the goal monitored? How are changes in condition explained, predicted, or expected? In allopathy, prognosis is directly related to diagnosis, because it is thought certain conditions have an inevitable prognosis. In alternative medicines, prognosis may be derived from other environmental and situational factors (time of treatment, etc.)
  7. SUICIDE AND DEATH: Is this outcome seen as success or failure? In allopathy, it is to be avoided at all costs (except in hospice care.) In other systems, it is not always seen as failure.
  8. INSITUTIONS' ROLE: What is the role of the institutions where healing ways are practiced? Are they just sites for treatment, or are they part of the cure? Hospitals are places where patients 'stay' but do not 'live' - they are expected to leave when they get 'better.' Non-allopathic medical institutions often are thought to facilitate the healing process in various ways.
  9. ROLE OF PERSONNEL: Who is part of these institutions, and what roles do they play? Allopathic doctors treat, nurses care, and staff rehabilitate. Other medical systems deploy personnel in different ways, with the physician fulfilling all three functions.
  10. CLIENTS' RIGHTS AND DUTIES: In allopathy, the client has the right to know the prognosis. He has the duty not to engage in self-destructive behavior. Other rights and duties are not given, generally speaking. Other alternative medicines give the client a much less passive role in the outcome of his condition.
  11. FAMILIES' RIGHTS AND DUTIES: In allopathy, the family also has a right to the prognosis, and a duty not to interfere with the process of treatment. Arguments about this area with regards to abortion, euthanasia, etc. abound. In some alternative medical systems, the family are intimately involved in the healing process.
  12. SOCIETY'S RIGHTS AND DUTIES: The debate about this area in allopathy is fueling much of the arguments over "health care reform." At this point, society is debating its rights and duties with regard to medical care, but it is generally thought society has a right to be well and a duty to pay for it. Some alternative medical systems look for social causes and cures for disease.
Attempting to understand how alternative medicines might address these social variables differently might be as useful as running 'scientific' tests of their efficacy at the NIH. But alternative medical practicioners seemed resigned to proving their disciplines through 'scientific' arguments (competing with biomedicine on its own terrain) rather than sociological ones. Perhaps this is why medical anthropologists need to look at these factors for them, so that they don't end up duplicating the ways biomedicine fails people in their mad rush to gain its 'respectability.'

Alternative medical practicioners might choose to emphasize pragmatic criteria (it works, but we don't know why), instead of seeking for a "scientific" basis for their fields. The fact is that aspirin works, but medical doctors aren't exactly sure why, either. The fact that aspirin "has no scientific basis" has certainly not stopped asprin manufacturers from selling their product. Alternative medical systems may incorporate social variables and factors that biomedical practice routinely ignores; factors that are essential in the healing process. To me, this is a more important avenue of investigation than the type of 'scientific' trials being sponsored by the NIH.


Homeopathy, radionics, and other alternative medical systems may or may not have a scientific basis. Each shows varying degrees of fidelity to the scientific method. And each seems, at first glance, to be a sort of eccentric cult. But the same thing could be said about "scientific" biomedicine at its inception, which also has roots in a magical, heterodox, charismatic sect (the Paracelsian iatrochemists.) From a Feyerabendian perspective, while biomedicine claims to follow a strict scientific method, it also routinely violates these norms, so it can on occasion be labelled pseudoscience as well. Based on Coulter's theory, it perhaps can be expected that all medical disciplines move from a cranky Empirical experimentalism to a confident Rational systematization - but is it desirable that alternative systems always become new orthodoxies, stifling their children or predecessors?

In any case, regardless of how scientific either homeopathy or radionics really are (or are seeking to become), they are both trying to appropriate scientific discourse in order to advance their acceptance by scientists and the public. They use scientific-sounding terminology and concepts, sponsor scientific-seeming experiments to prove their validity, create scientific-appearing institutions and devices for their disciplines, and employ scientific-looking procedures which at base really derive from intuition and instinct, if not from some other posited "psychotronic" or "dowsing" talent. Because of the prevalence of scientism in modern society, it is to be expected that fields of 'marginal' status within a scientific framework will attempt to seem as scientific as possible, in order to justify their existence (and attract adherents.)

The founders of alternative medical practices often have had very standard medical training. They are not ignorant of the scientific orthodoxy of their time. The reasons for the "rebellions" against medical orthodoxies may be more sociological than intellectual. Unfortunately, their followers have chosen to try and justify their particular heterodoxies while still trying to win the approval of orthodoxy. This is an unstable position which is bound to collapse. Rather than mounting a direct challenge to scientism (e.g., there are "ways of healing" which may not be scientific in the strict sense, but they still work nonetheless) by appealing to pragmatism, alternative medical practicioners have tried to beat biomedicine at its own game, with deplorable results.

Looking at the genesis and trajectory of alternative medicines is an interesting avenue into the more general problem of examining scientific heterodoxies (Velikovskyanism, etc.) and the accomodations they have tried to make in justifying their existence. Alternative medical practicioners, 'traditional' medical practicioners, and medical anthropologists might consider an alliance against scientism. The Dictatorship of Reason, governed by Voltaire's Bastards, has been allowed to run the West unchecked for too long. Anthropology, itself seeking to betray its origins by aping a long-dead postivism, and taking on the appearance of scientificity through patently unscientific doctrines like cultural materialism, is facing a similar problem. The Horatios of science, with their single reducing lens of scientific analysis, need to be reminded that there is, indeed, more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in their philosophy.

As science meets anomalies it cannot explain, according to Kuhn, increasingly it starts to enter "crisis" periods where assumptions are revised and paradigms are surrendered. Biomedicine may be entering one of those "crisis" periods right now, as it confronts anomalous conditions (chronic fatigue syndrome, etc.) for which there seems to be no biomedical solution. Alternative medicine could go on aping a failing biomedicine, or seek to uncover terrain it has left untouched. Homeopathy and radionics may contain clues to things about human health which have, up till now, been left unaddressed in 'scientific' biomedicine; but they won't discover those things if they let themselves continue imitating the surface of a vanishing paradigm. It remains to be seen what will happen.


  1. Inglis, Brian, Fringe Medicine. Faber and Faber, London, 1964.
  2. Coulter, Harris L., Divided Legacy: a history of the schism in medical thought, Vol. III, Wehawken Book Co., Washington, DC., 1973.
  3. Richardson, Sarah, Homeopathy: the illustrated guide, Harmony Books, New York, 1988.
  4. Henshaw, George R., M.D., A Scientific Approach to Homeopathy, Exposition Press, Hicksville, NY, 1980.
  5. Wallis, Roy, (ed.), On the Margins of Science: the social construction of rejected knowledge, (Sociological Review monograph 27), University of Keele Press, Staffordshire, 1979.
  6. Redner, Harry, The Ends of Science: an essay in scientific authority, Westview Press, Boulder, 1987.
  7. French, Roger; and Wear, Andrew, The Medical Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989.
  8. Davidson, John, Subtle Energy, C.W. Daniel Co., Essex, 1988.
  9. Tompkins, Peter; and Bird, Christopher, The Secret Life of Plants, Harper & Row, New York, 1973.
  10. Pilkington, J. Maya, Alternative Healing and Your Health, Ballantine Books, New York, 1991.
  11. Weiner, Michael, Dr.; and Goss, Kathleen, The Complete Book of Homeopathy, Avery Publishing Group, Garden City, NY, 1989.
  12. Nicolls, Phil, Homeopathy and the Medical Profession, Croom Helm Ltd., New York, 1988.
  13. Eden, James, Energetic Healing: The merging of ancient and modern practices, Plenum Press (Insight Books), New York, 1993.
  14. Jeanchild, Susan-Leigh (Master's Thesis) "Homeopathic Medical Care: A Study of Patient Characteristics, Symptomatology, and Reported Results." University of Florida, Health Science Education, 1990.
  15. Tansley, David V., Dimensions of Radionics: a manual for radionic theory and practice for healthcare professionals, Health Science Press, Holsworthy, 1977.
  16. Debus, Allen G., The Chymical Philosophy: Paracelsian science and medicine in the 16th/17th century, Science History Publications, New York, 1977.
  17. Cavender, Tony, "The Professionalization of Traditional Medicine," from Human Organization, vol. 47, no. 3, Fall 1988, pp. 251-255
  18. Bayley, Carol, "Nonorthodox medical systems and their epistemological claims: the case of Homeopathy," from Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, vol. 18, no. 2, April 1993, pp. 129-146
  19. Begley, Sharon, "Can water 'remember'? Homeopathy finds scientific support," from Newsweek, vol. 12, no. 4, July 25th, 1988, pp. 66-7
  20. Weiss, Rich, "Acupuncture: an old debate continues," from Science News, vol. 134, no. 8, August 29th, 1988, pp. 122-3


  1. Wallis, On the Margins of Science, p. 38
  2. Inglis, Fringe Medicine, p. 15
  3. Foucault, Power/Knowledge, p. 110
  4. Redner, The Ends of Science, p. 78
  5. Debus, Paracelsian science and medicine, p. 35
  6. Coulter, Divided Legacy, p. xvi
  7. Cavender, "The Professionalization of Traditional Medicine"
  8. Weiss, "Acupuncture: an old debate continues"
  9. Begley, "Can water 'remember'?: Homeopathy finds scientific support."
  10. Weiner, The Complete Book of Homeopathy, p. 29
  11. See Becker, The Body Electric, pp. 10-45
  12. From Pilkington, Alternative Healing, p. 7
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