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Letters: October 1999

The bottom line of medicine should be healing.

By Kathryn Brown
Oct 1, 1999 5:00 AMMay 9, 2023 7:07 PM


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America's Doctor

As a physical scientist who spent three months in Andrew Weil's shop last winter, I must say that your article effectively illustrated why the allopathic medicine monopoly in the United States is a vanishing phenomenon. Arnold Relman and Marcia Angell sound like King Canute telling the waves to back off. They demonstrated repeatedly that allopathic medicine has assumed godlike power over the world with mantras like "scientific" and "peer-reviewed double blind" while getting elementary facts wrong (for example, Angell attributes the increase in longevity to allopathic medicine). But the American populace has voted: Visits to "alternative modalities" exceed visits to allopaths.

Relman and Angell simply don't get it. Whole Persons = Bodies + Minds + Spirits, which can be accessed, affected, and possibly healed if doctors keep that equation in mind and integrate 10,000 years of empirical experience with the highly effective reductionist interventions of modern technology.

Rustum Roy Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus


Alternative medicine is the worst kind of pseudoscience, combining sensible life-style choices with just enough gratuitous New Age quirks to make it appear profound and different.

Weil's list of when to consult a traditional physician speaks volumes. Boiled down, it says: If you are seriously ill, go to a regular doctor; if you are essentially healthy and have only some vague or niggling complaint that will probably go away in time anyhow, then eat a few herbs and drink green tea and give alternative medicine the credit.

David Whitcomb, M.D. MARIETTA, GA.

The bottom line of medicine should be healing. If Weil and other alternative practitioners are healing people, their methods should be investigated rather than attacked. This approach would, of course, lend credence to a medical system based on therapeutic efficacy rather than profits.

Ronald R. Presson NORTHRIDGE, CALIF.

I thought Discover was all about science and scientists. Your article on Dr. Weil was about neither. Even Weil admits that the "peer-reviewed research is coming" (i.e., not here yet). The article may be newsworthy, but I read Discover for its science content, not for information on personalities that I can find elsewhere in the news.

Mayer B. Davidson, M.D. LOS ANGELES, CALIF.

Weil engages in hyperbole when he states that improved sanitation and hygiene are the main reasons life expectancy has increased dramatically during this past century. Antibiotics, improved nutrition, and emergency medicine have also contributed greatly to our increased life spans. Weil's misstatements, however, pale in comparison with those of Drs. Arnold Relman and Marcia Angell when it comes to their perceptions of who uses alternative medicine. At least a dozen large-scale surveys have demonstrated that alternative medicine users typically are well educated, have higher incomes, and mostly have chronic medical conditions that are not well treated by conventional medicine. They aren't rejecting conventional medicine, just supplementing it with other options. Weil has become popular because he offers commonsense approaches to treating complex and poorly understood conditions. He also offers patients some hope, which is what a good doctor does.

James Swyers TAKOMA PARK, MD.

Brad Lemley's article about alternative medicine guru Andrew Weil contains many misleading statements.

Weil's claim that not even 30 percent of conventional procedures have been rigorously tested is based on a 1963 survey of 19 family doctors in Britain. A 1995 study in The Lancet suggested that 82 percent of primary treatments were scientifically proven; most of the remaining 18 percent are based on strong scientific principles.

Weil cites a National Institutes of Health grant to study "cranial therapy," a quack method of "manipulating" the bones of the skull. As anyone who has studied anatomy ought to know, the bones of the skull are fused together and cannot be manipulated.

Lemley repeats the oft-heard falsehood that plant-based medicines can't be patented, and thus are unprofitable and ignored by the establishment. While you cannot patent plants, processes to convert the plants to therapeutic form can be profitably patented.

A train and a bus are transportation alternatives; aspirin and Advil are over-the-counter alternatives for pain relief. But a pogo stick is not an alternative to an automobile, nor is a quack remedy an alternative to proper treatment. To make appropriate health decisions, the public needs accurate information, not questionable anecdotes and self-serving hyperbole.

John E. Dodes, D.D.S., and Marvin J. Schissel, D.D.S.


Writer Brad Lemley replies: The proportion of scientifically proven treatments is a thorny issue about which experts disagree. But the U.S. Congress's Office of Technology Assessment report cited by Weil was indeed based on a small, outdated sample, and several recent studies do place the proportion higher. The Lancet-cited study, however, lumped "convincing nonexperimental evidence" together with randomized controlled trial evidence to achieve the 82 percent figure. Conviction is in the eye of the beholder: These methods suggest precisely the sort of subjectivity for which Weil is often castigated.

Cranial bone mobility is explored in "Cranial Mobility in Man: Objective Measurements in Normal Subjects" (Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, vol. 95, number 8, August 1995, page 497), in which researchers measured rhythmic cranial bone movement in 22 subjects. I could find no studies outside of osteopathic circles replicating these results, and many medical doctors maintain that adult skull bones are fused and immobile.

Regarding the patentability and profitability of plant-based medicines, Weil asserts, "You can make a novel formulation or combination of ingredients, but the fact remains that you cannot recover your investment to the degree that you can with a molecule that you own." Clearly, the profit potential of a drug such as Prozac outstrips that of a unique St.-John's-wort formulation.

Lemley's report on our "Science Meets Alternative Medicine" conference snidely refers to a slide I showed of a can of shoe polish next to a pile of human excrement. Not mentioned was my clear statement that the pile was a plastic replica bought in a magic shop. The Shinola can was real.

The audience was not a "cheering section," but largely scientists and health professionals discouraged by pseudoscience fed to the public under label of "alternative medicine," and its major vector, the press.


Bug's Buddy

Thank you kindly for your article on the lowly pill bug ["How Now, Sow Bug?" August], a creature that has often occupied my and my children's time while we are flipping rocks in the garden. As an amateur fossil hunter, I often use the pill bug to illustrate to children what a trilobite might have looked like. I have also used it to rid children of their fear of insects: Who can be afraid of such a tiny gray ball? Yet I never knew exactly what it was. Now I'll have to settle with ridding the local kids of their fear of crabs and lobsters . . .

Diane Brown-Steiner EAST ROCHESTER, N.Y.

They're Not Your Father's Bubbles

If your readers enjoyed the forms that soap bubbles take ["Bubble, Bubble," August], they are not alone. When I demonstrated soap-bubble forms for the world's mathematicians last year at the International Congress of Mathematics in Berlin, they were as delighted as any boy or girl has ever been. The bubble shapes included cubes, dodecahedrons, tornadoes, and even the truncated octahedron (the so-called Kelvin Cell), but I do think that the round ones are the prettiest.

I have seen the Edgerton photograph showing the bullet going through the gas-filled bubble before. Though the image was oriented the same way that you printed it, I'm sure that the photo is upside down (or else the drop is forming at the top in defiance of gravity). If that's the case, are you sure that it is filled with helium?

By the way, I brought Bubble Festivals to the science museum world by convincing Frank Oppenheimer to present the first one at the Exploratorium in 1983.


Fenella Saunders replies: We referred to a book of Edgerton's photos, Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton (Abrams, 1987), to determine the correct orientation for the image. We have since spoken with Gus Kayafas, the picture editor andpublisher of Dr. Edgerton's works. He told us that when they compiled the book, near the end of Edgerton's life, Kayafas initially placed the photo the other end up because he believed it was an air-filled bubble. Edgerton, however, insisted that it was helium filled and therefore should be inverted. Out of respect for him, they adjusted the photo. In future editions, though, the photograph will be printed in what Kayafas (and you) believe to be the correct orientation.

Purple Pros

Kudzu, while fast growing, is not overrunning the South, and is actually more a curiosity than a problem ["Purple Passion," August]. I have never understood why the lovely dandelion is considered a nuisance, except for the fact that it does very well without any help from humans, which to some people means it cannot be worth anything. The idea that you have to kill something like purple loosestrife for no other reason than that it's "nonnative" seems rather dubious to me, particularly when the proposed method of killing it is to import more nonnatives. Personally, I'm happy to consider any species that has been in this country longer than I have to be a native.

Don Grace


The Long Good-Bye

One reason why Dolly and other cloned animals are unhealthy ["Good-bye, Dolly," R&D;, September] may be the accumulation of deleterious mutations in the dna used to clone these animals. These mutations may not be cell lethal, but they could be detrimental to the development and survival of adult clones. This may also be the reason why early cloning experiments were more successful when nuclei from embryonic cells were used. If such mutations are the cause of the unhealthy clones, this also supports the mutation theory of aging, especially the mutation accumulation theory of aging.

R.C. Woodruff Distinguished Research Professor


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