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Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine 1st Edition

54 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195383423
ISBN-10: 0195383427
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A biostatistician, author and Senior Research Methodologist at the University of Maryland, Bausell looks at the alternative methods used by more than 36 percent of Americans to treat pain and illness by posing the question, "Is any complementary and alternative medical therapy more effective than a placebo?" In short, his answer is no; what, then, is actually happening in patients (and professionals) who swear by the medical utility of such complementary and alternative medicines ("CAMs") as acupuncture, deep breathing exercises and megavitamin therapy? Step by step, Bausell builds a rigorous case against CAM, beginning with a look at the history of CAMs and placebos, then the "poorly trained scientists" and flawed studies (among more than 300 analyzed for this book) that have historically supported CAM's efficacy. A breakdown of the placebo effect's hows and whys follows (are people hardwired for susceptibility?), along with a look at "high-quality studies" and "systematic reviews" (including an Italian study that finds natural opioid secretion in the brain responsible for the perceived benefits of placebos) which largely support Bausell's answer. Entertaining and informative, with plenty of diverting anecdotal examples, Bausell offers non-professionals and pros a thorough look at the science on CAM, along with a complementary lesson in the methods of good medical research.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"Mr. Bausell has emerged with a book about his true intellectual passion-- how we teach, how kids learn, and what would give us better results... His vision of the learning lab -- with students touching computer screens as they follow computerized lessons, each of them learning at his or her own pace, and with tutors providing individualized instruction as necessary-- suggests a more efficient model for learning, particularly for children already behind the curve, and real urgency about the future." --Dan Rodricks, The Baltimore Sun

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (July 31, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195383427
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195383423
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 1 x 5.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #198,189 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on October 23, 2008
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
R. Barker Bausell is a biostatistician who worked for the NIH's Complimentary Medicine Program, which was designed to test the efficacy of Contemporary and Aleternative Medicine (CAM). As a biostatistician, Bausell is the one who designs studies so that they are as fair and unbiased as possible. His big "beef" with CAM? That the less biased the study, the less effective CAM seems to be.

This book has several strenghts and several weaknesses. I will go into the strengths first.

First, while the book suggests that it is primarily about 'debunking' alternative medicines, the bulk of the book is spent talking about how effective studies are designed and different things that can undermine the validity of studies (small sample sizes, shoddy control/placebo treatments, attrition). In short, this book offers a VERY good explanation of how science works. (Only after explaining how good studies are designed does our author go on to suggest that most CAM studies are quite poorly designed.)

This book spends a lot of time talking about the 'placebo effect,' a large player in CAM research. The placebo effect is a (generally) psychological effect where the person experiences betterment SOLELY from having any kind of treatment at all (even a sugar pill). Our author's point with explaining the placebo effect is to suggest that well-designed CAM studies point to one conclusion: that most CAM treatments are only as effective as any other placebo (incorrectly performed accupuncture is as effective as 'legitimate' acupuncture, not because accupuncture works, but because the subject wants or expects it to work).

The author is very far from biased.
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48 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Ronald P. Ng on July 12, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I am a practicing physician in Singapore and at one time, on staff teaching hematology in University College Hospital Medical School, London University and then Hong Kong University. Many years ago, while sitting on the Singapore National Medical Research Council, there was one grant applicatioin that asked for money to do a piece of research on "Acupuncture for the relief of osteoarthritic knee pain." There was no sham acupuncture control group mentioned. When I said in order to make the trial valid, there must be a control group. The answer came back, "We know no matter where we stick the needle, the pain will improve." That started me on my quest for more knowledge regarding acupuncture and other forms of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).

This book by R. Barker Bausell is the best one I have ever read. Bausell is a biostatistician, a Professor at the University of Maryland and at one time Research Director of an NIH funded CAM Specialized Research Center. The structure of the book could roughly be outlined as an attempt to finding answers to the following questions:
1. Is there such a thing as a therapeutic placebo effect?
2. Is there a plausible biochemical analgesic mechanism of action that could explain such an effect?
3. Is there such a thing as a CAM therapeutic effect over and above what can be attributed to the placebo effect (assuming that there is such a thing as the latter)?
4. Are there plausible biochemical mechanisms of action that could explain these CAM therapeutic effects (assuming there are such things)?
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53 of 64 people found the following review helpful By J. Seidman on January 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Bausell does a great job in this book of explaining why Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is so popular, even though there's no good evidence that it works. To do this, he goes through several steps.

He explains how both consumers and medical practitioners could be convinced of the efficacy of CAM when it's not there. He explains the basics of good research, especially using a placebo control. He shows how bad most CAM research is. He provides compelling evidence that the placebo effect, at least for pain relief, is a real, physiological phenomenon. And he pulls this all together to show that CAM is no more effective than placebo.

I've seen criticisms that he lumps all CAM together. That's true, because every CAM technique suffers from the same two characteristics: there is no scientific basis for why it should work, and the research on it lousy. Most CAM therapies don't lend themselves towards placebo controls - how do you do a sham chiropractic adjustment? In fields such as homeopathy and acupuncture where there are good placebos, placebo-controlled trials are overwhelmingly negative. That's probably why most trials don't use placebos.

Note that Bausell doesn't say that CAM doesn't work. On the contrary, he just says it's no more effective than placebo. Since placebo effects are real, CAM effects are real, and CAM practitioners can provide some real relief. Does that put them on a par with mainstream Western medicine, which can provide treatments that greatly exceed the placebo effect? Of course not.

The book would have benefited from a discussion of how any CAM treatment that can survive quality research then ceases to be CAM. For example, he talks briefly about willow bark, which contains aspirin, and how it used to be an herbal remedy.
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