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Natural Mythology

by Steven Novella, Jul 20 2009

There is nothing more powerful than an idea, and nothing more potentially harmful than a false idea that everyone “knows” is true and therefore does not question. “Natural” remedies are now a multi-billion dollar industry, and it’s not just independent startups but the supplement industry and even pharmaceutical companies are cashing in on the marketing appeal of the word “natural”.

The Natural Myth

It is difficult to find a health food product that does not have the word “natural” incorporated into its name, its product labeling, or even the name of the company that manufactured it. Even many common supermarket products will proudly proclaim that they have all natural ingredients. Everyone knows that natural is better than, well, not natural. The problem is, no one can give a good working definition of what natural means.

Because of this problem with definition, there is no regulation of the use of the word “natural” in product labeling or advertisement. Any company can therefore call any of their products natural without fear of liability for false advertising. Health food companies are happy with this vagueness of terminology, because they can use the term natural to give their products a mythical sense of goodness without making specific claims.

Some will define natural as unprocessed or unaltered. Therefore, a leaf or root or fruit which is consumed without altering it from its harvested form is natural. The difficulty with this definition is that almost all products, whether food, supplement, or medicine, undergo some processing, so where can we objectively draw the line? If you process apples into apple juice, is that apple juice natural? What about wheat into bread, leaves into tea, or coffee beans into coffee? You may try to distinguish mere food preparation from processing, but you will find that again there is no clear line.

The concept of processing can be broken down into its different components, such as pulverizing, boiling, leaching, mixing, separating, purifying, etc. All of these processes are used in what we would consider simply cooking, but they are also the components of processing plants into tablets which are then marketed as pharmaceuticals.

If you then abandon the concept of natural meaning unprocessed as not useful and hopelessly confusing, you may alternatively define natural to mean occurring in nature. Here one runs into similar problems, however. The elements out of which all substances are made are, of course, all naturally occurring, therefore it is only meaningful to talk about molecules as natural or artificial. If a molecular substance is purified from among the hundreds which can be found in a particular plant, such as caffeine from coffee beans, is that substance no longer natural? What if it is minimally altered, just adding a couple of atoms to the molecular structure so that it is more easily absorbed into the body, but its biological activity is otherwise unchanged? What about combining two naturally occurring substances together to form a third novel compound? Such processes occur when boiling leaves to make a “natural” herbal tea.

Beyond the difficulty with definition, there is also no compelling reason to think that molecules which occur in nature have any advantage for human wellness over those which are the product of human ingenuity. Most substances naturally occurring in plants, for example, are deadly poisons or will at least make you very sick. Plants contain hundreds of substances; some have minimal biological activity, some are just food. Others have pharmacological effects which are potentially useful if used correctly. Many others contain substances which are toxic to humans even in minute doses, such as arsenic, hemlock, and alkaloid poisons.

The substances that can be found in nature are primarily a product of chance, the vagaries of evolution. Plants evolve only to be more successful at surviving in their current environment, not for the benefit of one egocentric mammalian species. They have not been fine-tuned by nature to be good medicines or anything else. Fruit, for example, exists only as a bribe to compel animals into spreading seeds, which is the fruit’s real purpose. The chemical substances that are currently represented in plant or animal biochemistry are therefore purely a result of random chance, not any design serving humans. There is therefore no logical reason to believe that “natural,” by any definition, is better.

Further, there is no difference in the chemical activity or any properties of a molecule which is extracted from a plant, or a molecule with the same structure that was created in a chemical laboratory atom by atom. There is no experiment that can be conducted, biological or otherwise, to distinguish these two substances, because their properties are solely determined by their chemical structure, not their derivation.

Therefore, the concept of natural is not a very useful one. It is both difficult to define precisely and, when closely examined, of no real intrinsic value. And yet, it is cited as the greatest single virtue of many alternative therapies. The psychological appeal, however, is obvious. There is a general fear in our culture of technology gone out of control. Toxins and “chemicals” in our environment are blamed almost abstractly for many of our current ills, often without any supporting evidence. Industrial pollutants darken our skies, acidify our rain, poison our waters, and threaten our health. It is no wonder that the idea of getting back to pure nature is so appealing to so many.

Herbs are drugs

Herbal remedies are enjoying an immense upsurge in popularity. Sales of St. Johns Wort (hypericum), an herb used to treat depression, now exceed those of Prozac in Germany, where the herb is chiefly produced. Its use is now also growing in the U.S., and it has received nothing but good press from the media. It is claimed, without clinical evidence, that the herb works as well as Prozac and other drugs marketed for depression but without the side effects. How is this possible? Because it is all-natural, we are told.

The distinction, however, between medicinal herbs and drugs is a false one. A drug is simply defined as any substance which has a physiological effect on the body other than its pure nutritional value. Caffeine is a drug, and so is alcohol. The term drug, however, has taken on a negative connotation, partly because of the recent war on illegal recreational drug use. The health food industry has exploited and increased this negative connotation. They have then offered their herbal remedies as an alternative to drugs. But any herb that has a medicinal effect is, by definition, a drug.

Many of the pharmaceuticals currently in use by mainstream physicians are substances which are found in plants, or are derivatives of plant substances. Their chemical structure has been identified and analyzed, and every property of the drug that can be known has been investigated. This includes how and where it is absorbed into the system, how long it hangs around (a property called its half-life), where it goes, how it is stored, where and how it is metabolized, and how it is excreted. Also, as much as can be learned about the precise mechanism of action of the substance is investigated, including what tissues it affects, what receptors it binds to, what the side effects are, the signs of toxicity, and how much of the drug would be fatal.

This kind of information is obtained in experiments which are called preclinical (or animal-based) and phase I and phase II clinical (or human-based) trials. At this point, the work is just beginning, however. For now a phase III clinical trial must be completed, involving many patients in a double-blind placebo-controlled format to determine if the drug is safe and effective. If this is proven to the FDA’s satisfaction, the drug can then be marketed. Physicians can then prescribe the drugs, and they will have enough information to know exactly what dose to give their patients, what the resulting blood levels will be, how long the effect will last, what the interaction with other drugs will be, what beneficial physiological effect to expect, and what to look out for in terms of side effects.

Someone taking an herb for its alleged medicinal benefits, however, does not have any of this information. The active ingredient, if there is one, is mixed together with many other chemicals, many of which are undesirable. It is impossible to regulate dosing, for there will be tremendous variability from plant to plant, region to region, and season to season, in the exact constitution of the herb. And finally, the effects, toxicity, and other properties of the herb have not been studied in any controlled fashion. This is the worst kind of medicine.

Even in the best case scenario, if an herb exists with an active ingredient that has a desired effect with little side effects, this is no guarantee that it will be used properly. Drugs are only useful when they are combined with clinical knowledge and experience so that they can be used intelligently and with understanding.

Herbal medicinals, like hypericum, are drugs. Some have already been incorporated into mainstream medicine. Others have potential and should be studied properly. The practice of herbal medicine, however, is imprecise, unscientific, and sloppy. It is far more likely to cause harm than good. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, however, that has managed to evade FDA regulation, primarily because of political support due to the popular mystique of “natural” medicine.

In the last decade many popular herbal remedies have been tested in large clinical trials. They have not fared well. Hypericum for depression, echinacea for colds, ginkgo biloba for memory, and saw palmetto for enlarged prostate had no effect. If they were actually regulated like drugs, they could not get approval.

Ancient Wisdom

Another popular claim of many alternative remedies is that they are based upon ancient knowledge. The popularity of the idea that an earlier golden era had greater wisdom than our current age is a certain sign of discontent and decline. It is another manifestation of a lack of faith in modern technology to solve the world”s problems. A hundred years ago, the industrial revolution promised to bring about a modern Utopia. This optimism, however, was premature, and today, as a society, we have a much more realistic idea of what technology can and cannot do, and what the costs of technology are.

Humans, however, tend to be diehard optimists. If technology has not delivered all we desire, then some will turn to another solution upon which to place their hopes. This is at least one factor in the current popularity of New Age philosophies. Many New Age gurus have turned to Eastern philosophy and ancient ideas, claiming that modern Western science does not have all the answers. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda are two alternative medicine beneficiaries of this trend.

Interestingly, there are those practitioners who even try to have it both ways. Despite the current fad of antirationalism, science still is a greatly respected institution in our culture. Its many successes cannot be denied. A new advertising strategy for alternative therapies is to claim that they are the coming together of ancient wisdom and modern science – the best of both worlds. This claim, however, is just another myth.

Ancient philosophies of medicine suffer from the fact that they were formulated at a time when virtually nothing was known about human anatomy or physiology, when the fields of genetics, biochemistry, and infectious disease did not even exist. One to three thousand years ago, when TCM and Ayurveda were born, it was not known that the brain was the seat of intelligence, that the heart pumped blood, and no one had any idea what the liver did. It was not even known that specific diseases existed, with their own signs and symptoms, causes, cures, and natural history. People were thought to suffer from their own personal and unique maladies.

Medical systems at this time were based upon philosophies, not science or evidence. Most of the philosophies were based upon spiritual or magical notions, such as the idea of Chi or life force central to TCM. Disease, they believed, was caused by imbalances or blockage of flow in these mystical forces. Equally mystical and fanciful methods, such as acupuncture, were invented to restore balance or unblock flow. The chance of any of these systems developing any truly useful therapies is very close to zero.

And yet proponents of these alternative practices will claim that the fact that they have survived and have been used for so many thousand years is testimony to their success. How could they have survived if they do not work, they argue. But history shows us that this claim is false. The humoral theory of disease, for example, dominated Western medicine for three thousand years. Until the advent of modern scientific medicine, Western doctors diagnosed imbalances in the four humors: blood, phlegm, green bile, and black bile. They treated these imbalances with emetics, cathartics, and blood letting. The utter failure of their treatments did not blunt their acceptance.

The only reason why the humoral theory is now dead is because its practitioners in the West changed from philosophy-based medicine to science-based medicine.  No one would advocate a return to the practice of blood letting for the treatment of fevers, but this is equivalent to advocating a return to other outdated philosophies of medicine, such as TCM and Ayurveda.

Finally, let us remember that 100 years of science-based medicine has doubled the human life expectancy from 40 to nearly 80 years. No philosophy-based medicine can make that claim. Three thousand years of TCM, Ayurveda, and the humoral theory added not a single day of human life.

Health Care Freedom of Choice

Freedom is a cherished virtue, especially in America, the self-proclaimed modern defenders of democracy and freedom. Cries for freedom, therefore, always command our attention and sympathy. Defenders of unscientific medicine have used this fact to their advantage, attempting to portray their battle for acceptance as a fight for freedom. The same defense was used earlier in this century when the creation of the FDA threatened to put Mom and Pop snake oil producers out of business. Fortunately for the American public, it did.

Making the debate about freedom of choice, however, is a deliberate misdirection. Mainstream physicians are strong supporters of patient”s rights, including their freedom to choose their health care providers, and to make all decisions regarding their care. There are those, however, who would try to confuse this freedom with the freedom of charlatans to practice fraud. No one should be free to present themselves as competent clinicians when they are not, or to offer the public remedies that have not met minimal standards of safety and effectiveness.

Still, defenders will argue that patients can read the labels, examine the evidence, and make informed decisions for themselves about alternative or any health care options. This is simply not realistic, however. Patients cannot and should not be expected to have a medical education in order to protect themselves from potentially harmful or useless treatments. Just as drivers should not be expected to be mechanics in order to ensure that their cars are safe, or engineers in order to ensure that the bridges they drive over will not collapse.

There is a system in place to ensure that medications, procedures, and devices are safe and effective. There are standards of care and practice guidelines which are based on the best scientific evidence available. Alternative practitioners, however, want to bypass this system in the name of freedom. What they are really defending, however, is their own freedom – their freedom to practice medicine without proper training and without the burden of doing the hard work and careful thinking necessary to practice the best medicine currently possible, or even to ensure that they are not doing more harm than good.

The health care freedom movement is really about eliminating the standard of care in order to promote treatments that cannot meet a reasonable standard.


Culture has inertia, and unfortunately the “natural” myth has become deeply embedded in our culture. Even a century ago the word “natural” was used to sell useless or even harmful nostrums to the public. But on close inspection it is nothing more than a modern mythology, a comforting lie.

54 Responses to “Natural Mythology”

  1. Mike says:

    While I agree that the “natural” reason is one reason people use products like St. John’s Wort or echinacea, there’s an additional reason you don’t mention: It does’t require a medical prescription. The cost in time and money of seeing a doctor is becoming more and more of a barrier for people seeking help with minor to moderate symptoms.

    We all “know” it’s not worth bothering our doctors when we get a cold, but if we can self-medicate with something like echinacea, we feel like we’re contributing to our own healing. It may well be illusory, but the motivation is real.

    • Max says:

      No prescription, cheaper, fewer side effects, and doesn’t affect insurability.

      • catgirl says:

        Well, it’s not necessarily true that natural or herbal things have fewer side effects or are automatically safer. This is especially true of plant extracts, where the concentration of the important molecule can vary greatly.

      • Max says:

        I didn’t mean to imply that it was necessarily true.
        I just listed factors that appeal to patients.

      • Greg says:

        The reason “Drugs” have long lists of side effect is because they have been extensively studied. The FDA requires any “Drug” to list every possible side effect, however uncommon. There is also an extensive database with all the effects and possible negative effects of mixing with other drugs.

        None of these “Natural” products have had any FDA approved testing, which is why they are not “Drugs”. So no one really knows what the side effects could be, how they interact with other drugs or “Natural” remedies, or even how much you should take to get any effect at all.

        So be very careful when choosing “Natural” remedies, you really are taking your health into your own hands.

      • Greg says:

        Fewer ~any~ effects, is more accurate for most of these products…

  2. Jeff says:

    I can in no way disagree with your argument here that “Natural!” isn’t automatically better. Ditto with “Organic!”. However, it is important not to over-simplify either side of the issue. Often the distinction between minimally process vs highly processed food product lies in the secondary contents. The non-fructose molecules in High Fructose Corn Syrup or the non-sucrose molecules in Sugar Cane Juice Crystals. Early corn syrup was processed using a filter with mercury in it. Some of that mercury leached into the syrup. Likewise, the mineral content of minimally processed sugar cane may affect the way the sucrose is metabolized (or not).

    The complex relationship between the way we grow our food, what we do to the food before we eat it, what we choose to eat, and our health is a topic that requires the highest level of critical thinking and scientific research. We should not let it be commandeered by the financially motivated food industry or marketers who try to distract gullible ‘consumers’ with oversimplified terminology.

    I find conclusion author Michael Pollan reached in his review of decades of nutritional research very telling. He concluded that while there are a large number of wildly different diets that are conducive to human health, the Western Diet is not one of them. The implication here is that it doesn’t matter how ‘natural’ your food product is, what you choose to eat renders it unhealthful.

  3. HHC says:

    Well-written article. I enjoyed the argument about longevity.

  4. Max says:

    The problem is, no one can give a good working definition of what natural means.

    Here’s mine: Natural is what humans consumed as they evolved, stuff that’s stood the test of time. So no, arsenic is not a natural thing to consume. My rule of thumb is that when you try to outsmart evolution too much, it’ll backfire on you. So when people demonize butter and extol “I can’t believe it’s not butter”, I’m skeptical.

    Furthermore, what’s natural to one group may not be natural to another. The Chinese don’t use dairy products in their cuisine, and 95% of them happen to be lactose intolerant. Coincidence?

    Medical systems at this time were based upon philosophies, not science or evidence. Most of the philosophies were based upon spiritual or magical notions, such as the idea of Chi or life force central to TCM.

    Some notions just sound nice but aren’t based on evidence, like the notion that food resembling an organ is good for that organ (broccoli for lungs, walnuts for the brain). But often, folk medicine finds patterns first, and then builds magical notions to explain the patterns. Newton thought that gravity was the force of God, but that doesn’t make his law of gravitation worthless.

    • Adam Y. says:

      Max that is a stupid argument because formaldehyde is found in all humans. Cyanide is found in peach and apple pits.

      • Max says:

        I don’t know any traditional recipes that use peach pits.
        Another example is mushrooms. Eat the wrong one, you die. Yet over the ages, people have figured out which ones are edible.

      • Shahar Lubin says:

        Apricot pits are used often to accentuate almond flavor. Because cyanide does not accumulate and only pose danger in high concentration, small amount are harmless. Many spices used have pharmaceutical effects, only with different doses than the ones used for cooking.

      • Adam Y. says:

        Just to point out how really dumb his argument is. People actually consume arsenic on purpose.

    • catgirl says:

      So, I suppose that it’s unnatural to shave, use air conditioning, or use the internet, since humans did evolve with those things, and they have not stood the test of time. The same could be said for antibiotics, vaccines, sanitation, and other things that have prolonged the human lifespan.

      • Max says:

        That’s right, those things are unnatural. I never said to avoid all unnatural things, but do expect adverse effects. Air conditioning damaged the ozone layer. Increased sanitation and antibiotic use has been linked to an increase in allergies and asthma. Over and over, scientists have underestimated the adverse effects of unnatural things like antibiotics, X-rays, margarine, infant formula, hormone replacement therapy, sunscreen, etc.

      • catgirl says:

        We didn’t evolve perfectly. We evolved to be just good enough. It’s natural for half of all children to die before adulthood. There’s no reason we should strive to emulate our ancestors. However, if you want to bring nature into it, I could easily argue that it’s more natural for us to use our big brains and conscious thought than to just do what we’ve always done. It has certainly improved our lives, natural or not.

  5. badrescher says:

    Very, very well said. The “freedom” issue sounds an awful lot like what’s going on in education (e.g., Ben Stein’s pushing of “Academic Freedom” in Expelled.

  6. badrescher says:

    @ Max:

    Perhaps the problem is more that nobody will give a good working definition of what “natural” means. It would limit what they may then call “natural”. Dodging is easier if you never commit to a position.

  7. There are certainly definitions of “natural” – but to be clear there is no working or operational definition, specifically for advertising. So any fuzzy definition can be made to fit just about any product.

    An evolutionary definition is not unreasonable, but much more fuzzy than Max makes it seem. How long does it take to adapt to a particular diet? Have humans fully adapted to our agricultural methods?

    Another limitation of the evolutionary metric is that our lifestyles are very different in many ways from our evolutionary milieu. We don’t have the same caloric needs, or life expectancy. Further, evolutionary forces would select for living long enough to raise children, not necessarily to have a long and happy life.

    In the end what we want (with regard to diet) is a diet that is healthy. So we should follow the science and the evidence. Whether or not something is “natural” is irrelevant – a distraction from the real issue.

  8. Max says:

    The concept of processing can be broken down into its different components, such as pulverizing, boiling, leaching, mixing, separating, purifying, etc. All of these processes are used in what we would consider simply cooking…

    Eskimos don’t develop scurvy because they get vitamin C from raw meat and fish. Cooking destroys the vitamin C, so to them cooking is not natural. Civilized Europeans in the Arctic refused to eat raw meat, and had a high incidence of scurvy. They also refused to ditch their cotton underwear, which absorbed sweat and made them freeze their asses off.

  9. John G says:

    This excelent article mentions both TCM and accumpuncture. I’m in need of a good reference to a scholarly review paper (preferably a meta-study) (and preferably available on the net without cost) that looks at these from an evidence-based medicine perspective. My goal is to have an evidence-based, appropriately skeptical discussion with a TCM true believer.

    Any sources I can use? Again, I’m looking for evedence-based work that references real studies.


  10. Jim says:

    I think you’re right on with all the main points however I think you might want to expand on the whole processed food bit. A major thing that I think you missed was the fact that people don’t like to look at an ingredient list and see a whole lot of things that they can’t pronounce. Don’t know if there is a kernel of truth in that but I find that Smuckers Natural Peanut Butter is full of deliciocity and I like seeing that there’s only 2 ingredients, peanuts and salt. Appeal to emotion, maybe? Jif is probably no different in the body even though it contains glycerides (to prevent separation). But without knowing what they’re used for and how your body processes them, the average comsumer will see that and think “ewww…chemicals.” But for the most part I don’t seem to see a problem with the idea of “the less ingredients, the better.” I find myself following that rule-of-thumb often even though I always roll my eyes at the latest thing advertising itself as “natual.”

    • Tuffgong says:

      I remember the Penn & Teller Bullshit! episode on Organic stuff and it rattled off the nutritional contents of something that sounded like some chemical soaked process food. It was an apple. They proved the point that people are intimidated by things that escape their area of comfort and make nasty conclusions based on ignorance.

      Yes I have see foods with “simpler” ingredients lists but that’s only marketing at work.

      All in all I have to agree all the way with this entry. Although the last section on Freedom could have benefited from an elaboration on the system of regulation and the amount of choice a consumer would have at each point in the field of medicine.

    • tmac57 says:

      Jif Peanut Butter :Ingredients


      It does make you wonder if just peanuts and salt might be somewhat better for you. I like the “natural” type better because it isn’t as sweet (no sugar).

    • catgirl says:

      Unfortunately, a lot of people believe that “chemical” is a dirty word. I’m sure we’ve all heard about the dihydrogen monoxide hoax (if not, Wikipedia is your friend). If something says “ascorbic acid” instead of “vitamin C”, that doesn’t make it any less healthy. The fear of chemicals is just another facet of the appeal to nature fallacy.

      • Max says:

        “Ascorbic acid” in the ingredients can mean that the food company’s processing killed the naturally occuring vitamins, and they added ascorbic acid so they can put “100% Vitamin C” on the product label.
        What’s healthier, whole wheat or enriched bleached wheat?

      • catgirl says:

        How, exactly, do you kill a vitamin? Do you mean denature? If you do, that only applies to a few heat-sensitive vitamins. If you get “vitamin C” or “ascorbic acid”, your body will not know the difference. The molecule is the same no matter where it came from. Also, do you even know what “processing” is? Does cooking food in a factory “kill” more vitamins than cooking it in your kitchen (for the same time at the same temperature)?

  11. itzac says:

    I really like your bridge/engineer example. I’ll have to remember it the next time someone brings up “caveat emptor” in a discussion about regulation. I doubt very much that anyone I know has personally inspected any bridge they’ve crossed, or would even know what to look for if they did.

    • Max says:

      “Caveat emptor” doesn’t really apply to a bridge, unless you’re buying a bridge, in which case I have one I’d like to sell you.

      • Shahar Lubin says:

        It’s your tax money and or toll that is used to build and maintain that bridge. You are the one buying it.

      • Max says:

        If the government paid for the bridge or gave the permit to build it, I expect them to have engineers to inspect the bridge.

  12. Max says:

    Can tobacco products be called “all natural”?

    • Beelzebud says:

      You could probably put All Natural, Organically Grown labels on it!

      • Darrin Cardani says:

        I saw an ad in a magazine recently that advertised the “only all-organic cigarettes” or something like that. So yes, you could, and someone already has. (I don’t remember the brand, but they used Native American symbols for their logo, I think. It wasn’t a popular brand I had heard of, but I’m not a smoker.)

      • tmac57 says:

        I found this on line:
        All Natural Native Cigarettes
        – Our #1 best selling brand!
        – All Natural Flavor
        – 100% Additive Free
        – All Natural Tobacco
        And here:
        “Natural American Spirit. Natural Tastes Better. We grow our premium natural tobacco in a responsible, sustainable way through our earth-friendly and organic growing programs. We also strive to reduce our footprint on the earth by using recycled materials and renewable energy sources like wind power. Protecting the earth is as important to us as it is to you.

        “Try the true, authentic taste of 100% additive-free, natural tobacco for yourself. We think you will agree, natural tastes better.”
        “No additives in our tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette.”

        I guess you can hardly dream up anything odder than what already exists.

      • Health blog says:

        Lol ! I’ll try the 100% natural ciggies.

      • Tilth says:

        If you smoke, you should try it — it’s called American Spirit, by the way. They produce excellent tobacco.

        I’m skeptical about the truth of their additive-free claims, though, if it’s true, it matters. As I understand it, tobacco companies add ingredients to their products which increase the user’s absorption of nicotine, effectively making their cigarettes more addictive. Some of the additives are harmful on their own, as well.

        I will say that in my purely subjective, personal experience, it was a lot easier to quit smoking American Spirit tobacco than it was to quit smoking when I smoked Camels. They were both addictive, but the level of addiction and power of withdrawal symptoms were completely different. There could have been plenty of reasons for the difference, of course, but that’s how it was for me.

  13. Beelzebud says:

    I like to add a small amount of All Natural Radium on my breakfast cereal in the morning. It’s All Natural, so it must be healthy! :D

  14. Brian says:

    It is no wonder that the idea of getting back to pure nature is so appealing to so many.

    I think another force behind the appeal of the “natural” label, besides what you already mentioned, is simply the idea of historical vetting. St. John’s Wort may or may not cure depression, the thinking goes, but on the other hand it’s probably not too dangerous either. People would have already noticed if eating lots of ginkgo balboa promotes flipper babies. Of course this logic isn’t airtight either, but I’ve found it’s harder to argue against with a true believer.

  15. Euell Gibbons has much to answer for.

    (Grape Nuts commercials, mid ’70s).

    • tmac57 says:

      I read somewhere that when asked if he really thought that Grape Nuts cereal tasted like “wild hickory nuts”, he cagily replied that what he actually said was that they “reminded him” of wild hickory nuts. Slippery old coot!

  16. jesmith says:

    Thought I’d send you this – I dont particularly support these kind of conspiracies but as your so in favour of science its often good to look at the other side. Science is the new religion it is as flawed as any other when taken to be total truth, Scientists effect and influence their results depending on who is footing the bill or just by being there in the laboratory. The uncertainty principle makes science actually unscientific. Personally I would rather trust unproven natural remedies that have been used for millenia than take my chances with pharmaceuticals.

    Austrian newspaper journalist Jane Burgermeister…has filed criminal charges with the FBI against the WHO, the United Nations, and some of the highest ranking corporations and govt. officials concerning bioterrorism and attempts to commit mass murder.

    Burgermeister’s charges include evidence that Baxter AG, Austrian subsidiary of Baxter International, deliberately sent out 72 kilos of live bird flu virus, supplied by the WHO in the winter of 2009 to 16 laboratories in four countries. She claims this evidence offers clear proof that the pharmaceutical companies and international government agencies themselves are actively engaged in producing,developing, manufacturing and distributing biological agents classified as the most deadly bioweapons on earth in order to trigger a pandemic and cause mass death.

    • Ramon says:

      Science is not the new religion, but I will agree that some people might think of it as such.

      “The uncertainty principle makes science actually unscientific”, you say and you make no sense. That is precicely the point, science works on the best evidence available, not on faith or imposition.

      To take your chances with unproven natural remedies is really unscientific and dumb, knowing as we do that some natural remedies have never been effective and some are harmful. But that is your choice. Try to avoid Tuberculosis by natural means.

      And, if “Burgermeister’s charges include evidence” it would be a hell of a story. Credible evidence, that is. Not TV Guide or Natural Enquirer type evidence.

  17. Ranson says:

    That’s a lot of crazy there, jesmith.

    Wouldn’t a more parsimonius explanation, should this event have actually occured (something not established here), be that these labs received virus in order to help devise, I dunno, treatments? Vaccines, perhaps? General research?

    From what I can find, she’s more than a bit of a crank. An even more parsimonius explanation might be that Burgermeister is off her meds.

  18. Maybe ‘they’ are the same people who faked the moon landing.

  19. Xplodyncow says:

    PSYCHIC POWERS ARE REAL.* You read my mind, Dr Novella! This is exactly what I was thinking about on Sunday while typing an e-mail called “Double-Blind Clinical Trials Prove Idiocy.”

    * Psychic powers are not actually real.

  20. I think it’s all bonkers to be honest.
    I have no fear of natural medecines making a comeback. It will never become a huge business but people need it.

    Simply there are areas where medecine is powerless.
    For example think about back ache, you know there aren’t many drugs that can help you. Well you can get treated by an Osteopath for example. Now that’s part of natural medecine even if it’s not drugs.

    Let’s take the example of plants remedies. Let’s pick ‘stress’ as a symptom. St John Worth, Kava Kava and all of these herbs do work very well.

    I disagree that plants/herbs are not labelled properly and that people do not know the side effects. Most common herbs are sold in the UK for example is shops with labels explaining use and potential side effects.

  21. Heather says:

    Well written post.

    I’d like to add that many of us will try alternative medicine because traditional medicine quite frankly does not have all the answers. So we research things, read alternative views promoted by actual physicians who recognize that there may be more than what can be seen, felt, or touched by a doctor.

    Take for example ‘idiopathic’ peripheral neuropathy. In a young female without diabetes or MS. Even though enjoying life and happy as a clam when the symptoms started, the doctor immediately questioned her mental health. How fair is that? Then the label of idiopathic is slapped on. Said patient is told that she is no ones problem. Hard to believe since something is causing this. So she seeks out alternative treatments instead of continual doctor visits that are useless anyways.

    Heartbreaking, yes?

  22. jtb004 says:

    The Chinese already had a longer lifespan than westerners so why should a system already in place show an improvement in the length of lifespan in the same length of time as a newly placed health system.