The Sciences

Well, you can forget ginkgo biloba

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitDec 31, 2009 1:00 AM


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I'm not too surprised to find out that a rigorous scientific test of ginkgo biloba found that it did not have the effects claimed by alt-med enthusiasts, including helping memory retention. Just speaking statistically, knowing the sheer number of claims made by people using "alternative" medicines, the vast majority of them are bound to actually not be true. Almost without exception, these kinds of claims are anecdotal in nature, which is unreliable. We need properly-handled blinded medical studies to find out the real nature of these claims, and this one, unfortunately, has not panned out. I don't expect this to have any impact whatsoever on either the sales of ginkgo biloba or the way it's advertised, of course. In general, the practice of alt-med as it is presented to the public is not based in scientific analysis of evidence, so it doesn't matter how much evidence is provided that shows that a particular claim is false. That doesn't mean we in the reality-based world want these tests to fail. My favorite part in the article is this:

The study finding is "disappointing news," says Steven DeKosky, dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine and the study's senior author. The only positive thing the researchers found is that ginkgo appears to be safe, he says.

DeKosky is dean of a prestigious medical school, and says he's disappointed. Of course he is. Despite what a lot of the alt-medders (and antivaxxers) say, doctors really do want what's best for their patients. If ginkgo had panned out, then that would be another weapon in doctors' arsenals to make us healthier, and make us healthier for longer in our lives. But it didn't work, so he was disappointed. Those of us skeptical of these alternatives to modern medicine don't want these things to fail. We already know that some mainstream medicines are based on what could once have been called herbal medicines -- aspirin is the obvious example, originally made from willow bark -- so we know better than to dismiss these potential additions to medicine out of hand. What we do dismiss are anecdotes provided as evidence, or used to make claims that aren't warranted from the evidence. All those anecdotes are is a place to start investigating the evidence for a potential medicine, not evidence in and of themselves.

Tip o' the ginkgo berry to Fark.

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