A great book, but the people who need it won’t read it

I mentioned this briefly before, but I’d like to mention it again: Suckers, by Rose Shapiro, is a wonderful demolition job of the alternative medicine racket.


Like all polemics, it sometimes crushes things that perhaps don’t deserve to be crushed – so it’s very hard on acupuncture, despite some indications that it can be useful in some circumstances – but the overwhelming majority of Shapiro’s targets deserve, and get, both barrels.

Here’s a short extract:

One American alternative practitioner and supplement salesman, Gary Null, tells us that “a solution to cancer would mean the termination of research programmes, the obsolescence of skills, the end of dreams of personal glory . . . Triumph over cancer would dry up contributions to self-perpetuating charities . . . It would mortally threaten the clinical establishments by rendering obsolete the expensive treatments in which so much money is invested . . . The new therapy must be disbelieved, denied, discouraged and disallowed at all costs”.

An imaginary researcher says: “Every year we must show you results. After all, you won’t support us if you don’t think we’re getting something done. On the other hand, we can’t be too successful — and we certainly can’t afford to come up with a cure. After all, if we did that, how could we come back to you next year and get more of your money?”

When in 2003 the US Food and Drugs Administration stopped Alpha Omega Labs selling Cansema, a worthless cancer cure, one supporter suggested that this was “no doubt because their products worked. The FDA has a long history of doing this to developers of successful cancer remedies”.

Alternative cancer therapists say their plant-based “cures” are overlooked by pharmaceutical companies because naturally occurring substances — rhubarb, for example — can’t be patented, precluding profit for “Big Pharma”. But David Colquhoun, Professor of Pharmacology at University College London, told me: “The kudos that a pharmaceutical company would get for finding an effective cure would be so enormous that it’s hard to imagine that they would decline to produce it, even if it didn’t make a lot of money. In any case, even when a plant-based substance (like Taxol, from yew) provides the initial lead, it is common for synthetic derivatives to be made that have better properties than the original.”

The book’s particularly good at characterising the typical alt-med consumer – well-educated, reasonably well-off women – and detailing the ways in which the alt-med industry targets them so effectively. Some bits had me jumping around in fury, and others were just desperately sad. Well worth reading.



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