A (Metaphorically) Magical Review of Dr. Offit’s Magnum Opus on Woo

Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine by Dr. Paul Offit.

Cover of Do You Believe in Magic. It has got all sorts of herbs emerging from a top hat. Very cute and clever.
I have friends who drive me mad with alt med crapola. People who shun vaccines, people who chug mega-doses of Emergen-C (and catch colds regularly anyway – but still swear it worked!), who go on and on about natural this and herbal that, until I wish to scream. There aren’t enough links to enough studies to explain why I get heartily sick of this bullshit.

Fortunately, I can now direct them to download this quite-reasonably priced ($1.99 for Kindle, last I checked – yowza!) book by a man who 1. knows his shit, 2. thoroughly mucks out the bullshit, and 3. is just kind enough to the placebo effect of some alt med treatments to placate these people.

Those of you who’ve been in the trenches of the vaccine wars probably know Paul as one of the despised enemies of anti-vaxxers. This book is an excellent example of why they hate him: it’s clear, concise, and full of citations to studies that make it very, very difficult to counter him. Also, he’s fair almost to a fault. Alt-med? He’s tried it himself. He’s given things like glucosamine a spin. He’s had less-than-satisfactory experiences with conventional medicine, so he gets why you might like something different. Sure. But then he says, let’s look at the studies – and there we have bad news. No better than placebo. Oh, dear. Better stick with the stodgy stuff, then, unless your condition is amenable to treatment by placebo, in which case, alt-med yourself out (on the safe stuff, anyway).

That’s the book in a nutshell.

Within these pages, many darlings of the alt-med scene are given a harsh dose of reality. Fans of Dr. Mehmet Oz, Depak Chopra, Dr. Andrew Weil, Suzanne Somers, Stanislaw Burzynsky, Jenny McCarthy, Joe Mercola, and other such purveyors of woo will become distressed as their darlings are demolished. People who pop vitamins are in for some very severe shocks. Supplement sectarians are about to get a rude awakening. Most of the book is merciless, and rightly so.

Most of these fatal blows are delivered with calm precision and gentle reliance on the facts, but the message is driven home with the occasional zinger, like this (my favorite line in the book): “Unfortunately, Vitamin O [oxygen] users lacked the one thing necessary to extract oxygen from water: gills.” Beauty.

I felt he went a little – perhaps a lot – too easy on the purveyors of placebos at the end (a trait he shares, interestingly enough, with Mark Twain, who had a big softy for Christian Science for just that reason: the placebo effect). I’m afraid those prone to such things will seize upon this and shriek that their pet nostrum really and truly works. I would guide their attention to the paragraphs in the final section that throw a bucket of cold water over the love fest. These are the four ways Paul divides practitioners of placebo medicine from outright quacks. For those who are curious, or need the crash course as an immediate inoculation against woo for self or others, they are these:

“First, by recommending against conventional therapies that are helpful.” If it quacks that you don’t need that chemo, it’s a quack. Run.

Second, “by promoting potentially harmful therapies without adequate warning.” If it quacks that its horrid green goo is 1000% safe despite being full of arsenic, it’s a quack. Run.

Third, “by draining patients’ bank accounts.” If it quacks it can heal you, but needs extravagant amounts of money to do so, it’s a quack. Run.

Fourth, “by promoting magical thinking.” You know the drill by now.

After reading this book, I feel much better prepared for the next dissertation on the wonders of alt-med I’m subjected to. And I have a handy tome to hand them that may, just possibly, save their lives. At the very least, it should make them wiser about their medical choices, save them some coin, and promote some harmony between them and the skeptics in their lives. Not bad for one little book, eh?

Dr. Paul Offit is a gray-haired man with brainy-specs and a suit, posing at a podium, smiling the smile of a man who's quite famous and just a bit embarassed about it.
Dr. Paul Offit, bane of woo-meisters everywhere. Image courtesy Michael Spencer for the National Institutes of Health Record via Wikimedia Commons.
A (Metaphorically) Magical Review of Dr. Offit’s Magnum Opus on Woo

8 thoughts on “A (Metaphorically) Magical Review of Dr. Offit’s Magnum Opus on Woo

  1. rq

    Oh, nice!
    One of my (still new) neighbours asked me if I used homeopathy. She’s a really lovely woman and a seamstress (hel-LO unmended children’s clothes!), so I like to start off with the “Well, no, I don’t, and here’s why” approach. She was kind and gentle and all “well, it does take about three months of using it for it to take effect…”, to which I snortled but didn’t have the heart to say that, well, most things end within three months…

    Also, correct me if I’m wrong (don’t have time to google) – there have been studies on how placebo sometimes works even better than homeopathy? And that people, even when knowing they’re taking placebo, show signs of improvement (in symptoms)?
    So yeah, alt-med is an incredible thing… Incredible that people still consider it legitimate, that is!

  2. 3

    Just a few days ago, during a conversation I was having with some of the staff at a neighborhood restaurant about a 23 year old guy who had just died from the flu, one of the guys said he stopped getting flu vaccine because the last time he did, it gave him the flu! And about half the others agreed with him!


  3. 4

    I have a co-worker (or is that cow-orker?) who is adamantly anti-vacc. I’ve tried to explain to this person that small pox wasn’t eradicated by eating leafy vegetables and thinking good thoughts but they’re dogmatic about Big Pharma™ and autism. It’s very frustrating.

  4. 6

    So — are we to trust Big Pharma?

    (FWIW, I am not into woo — not at all. I am a science geek, and proud of it, but am also very well aware of the corruption of pure science that Big Pharma has caused. )

    Very few doctors really know, or have the time to research, what all those drugs really do to their patients. They just accept what Big Pharma tells them — in their trade journals. Even pharmacists know a lot less that they should.

    For instance: do doctors and, especial;ly, pharmacists ever know the exact details of the tests that were done to prove” a drug has a certain effect? Are they aware how small the number of test subjects is and how short-term the tests are in most drug trials? And are doctors and pharmacists aware that Big Pharma pays for most of the tests done on drugs, and that he results are, therefore, likely to be quite biased?

    I found this article (from “The American Scholar” to be very interesting:


    Comments, anyone?

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