In the New York Times, Abigail Zuger, an M.D., recently reviewed a book called Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine by R. Barker Bausell — the “truth” being, if I read Zuger correctly, that it’s all baloney. Zuger calls the book “immensely educational”. Not educational enough:

Dr. Bausell starts out with the story of his late mother-in-law, Sarah, a concert pianist who developed painful arthritis in her old age and found her doctors to be generally useless when it came to satisfactory pain control. “So, being an independent, take-charge sort of individual, she subscribed to Prevention magazine, in order to learn more about the multiple remedies suggested in each month’s issue” for symptoms like hers.

What ensued, according to Dr. Bausell, was a predictable pattern. Every couple of months Sarah would make a triumphant phone call and announce “with great enthusiasm and conviction” that a new food or supplement or capsule had practically cured her arthritis. Unfortunately, each miracle cure was regularly replaced by a different one, in a cycle her son-in-law ruefully breaks down for detailed analysis.

Neither Bausell nor Zuger notice two problems here: (a) The alternative treatments worked better than the conventional ones. They didn’t provide permanent relief, true, but apparently conventional medicine (”useless”) didn’t provide any relief. Something is better than nothing — and something is wrong with Bausell’s interpretation of this story. (b) Why didn’t the conventional treatments benefit from the placebo effect?

That Zuger thinks this story supports her claim that the book is good suggests the power of pre-conceived notions, not the power of placebos.

The book is published by Oxford University Press. Bausell has a Ph.d. in Educational Research and works as a methodologist.

Not only do Bausell and Zuger fail to see what the mother-in-law story means, they fail to grasp a larger point: Skeptics are a dime a dozen. The attitude in short supply is sophisticated appreciation.

Thanks to Dave Lull and Hal Pashler.