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Alternative Medicine, and the Internet

When I think back to my own ‘discovery’ of the skeptical movement, it grew out of my experience watching the James Randi Secrets of the Psychics NOVA special. After being enthralled with the special (and with several Randi books already in my library) I sought Mr. Randi out on the Internet. In chat rooms, blogs, forums and skeptical conferences such as TAM this is a tale I’ve heard repeated many times; folks heard about the JREF of CSICOP (now CSI) and then used the World Wide Web to learn more about these organizations.

Recently I began to wonder about my own personal pet peeve (unscientific medicine) and how it has benefited from the Web’s huge explosion and influence. Certainly there are plenty of great sites out there that help to show much of so-called Alternative Medicine for what it really is – blogs like this, Dr. Stephen Barrett’s Quackwatch.org site, the National Council Against Health Fraud, and many other important sites; still the number of sites extolling the virtues of science and critical thinking pale in comparison to those that forward notions embracing magical thinking and quack-related products and health claims. A quick examination of the web’s most popular search tool (Google) shows us the cold hard facts about who’s winning the war of medical woo:

Note: On deciding whether a site is credulous toward a subject or not the criteria was simple. If the site extolled the virtues of the treatment modality without any critical or scientific background, I labeled it credulous. Sites that were supportive of the treatment but also contained critical evaluation or responses to the treatment I labeled as skeptical. Sadly, I had little difficultly making my decisions as it is obvious what a website’s motivations are.

Homeopathy
A search of the word ‘Homeopathy leaves us with over 11 million hits. Of the first 100 listings the findings are as follows:

Credulous and supportive of Homeopathy – 88
Skeptical of Homeopathy – 12

The first skeptical hit (I should note this is from Google.ca) is the 27th hit. That means that the first two and a half pages of hits on Homeopathy are all positive and extol the virtues of Homeopathic care. When I searched the word on the US version ‘Google.com’ I had a similar result with the one exception being the skeptical Wikipedia entry which appeared on the first page. Still, for most people the first three full pages of Google hits on the word Homeopathy do nothing but ramble on about the miracle cures and wonderful safety of the homeopathic way. In the case of Homeopathy I think we have to say that using search engines as a measuring stick, critical thinking has failed.

Chiropractic
Again, I limited my search to one simple word, that being ‘Chiropractic’ in Google with a return of over 21,000,000 hits. Of the first 100 listing the findings on Chiropractic are as follows:

Credulous and supportive of Chiropractic – 99
Skeptical of Chiropractic – 1

The very first listing on Chiropractic is the Wikipedia page, which initially piqued my interest, but right at the top of the article is the Wikipedia warning “the neutrality of this article is disputed.” After reading it over, yep, it’s entirely credulous of Chiropractic and is chock-full of anecdotes about how much better Chiropractic is for back injuries than standard medicine. Unfortunately this first entry goes into the credulous pile. The first skeptical listing on Chiropractic came on the 10th page and was the 92nd listing available. That means that a person searching the word chiropractic on Google.ca would have to wade through 91 websites before finding one site with any critical thought about the subject. Frankly, this saddens me. What’s even more frightening is that two fantastic sites, Chirobase and Quackwatch.org (Chirobase is a sister site of Quackwatch) didn’t make the listing at all.

Magnet Therapy
For magnets I used the two-word combination ‘Magnet Therapy’ in my Google search and it returned just under 700,000 hits. Of the first 100 listing the findings on magnet therapy are as follows:

Credulous and supportive of Magnet Therapy – 91
Skeptical of Magnet Therapy – 9

Finally a bit of good news. On the first page of hits the first four listings are skeptical of this therapy and include Wikipedia, Quackwatch.org, and even Canada’s CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) all of which are critical of magnet therapy’s efficacy. Unfortunately after the first page of listings on magnet therapy where there are five skeptical websites and/or articles on the subject, the remaining 90 listings contained only four skeptical links. Since most people probably look only at the first page or two of listings when searching out a topic, the fact that the first four listings involve critical examination is probably a small victory for critical thinking.

Summary
I could go on ad nauseum examining Google search engine hits on skeptical subjects, but in looking at three popular alternative practices it’s clear that the sheer number of practitioners and marketers out there simply crushingly outnumber those of us that care about critical thinking and worry about the possible negative effects of these belief systems. I think the best thing we can do is to attack at the point of the media and do our best to educate those with a loud voice (by this I mean those who are heard by millions) about the facts relating to alternative medical practices and the power and fallaciousness of the anecdote. My examination isn’t scientific and the fact that I am in Canada and may have different results that people in other countries should be taken into account, but still it’s a scathing reminder of where we stand in the battle against quackery.

Posted in: Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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