Whenever someone criticizes the irrationality of alternative medicine, the call goes up that the critics are just defending big pharma. Since the alternative medicine movement largely grew up in opposition to the pill pushers, it is assumed that anyone who criticises them must therefore be backing the pharmaceutical industry.
It is, of course, hard to see how the large pharmaceutical corporations can have any real commercial interest in curing chronic ailments since their market depends largely on sustaining the need to manage these conditions. It is vastly more profitable to keep people swallowing pills than to remove the need. So clearly, there's every reason to be suspicious of the over-willingness of general practitioners to prescribe more and more pills.
There have been numerous cases of drugs that have had to be withdrawn because of problematic side-effects, and that, too, is cause to question the methods used to develop and market drugs.
Because the big pharma corporations are in competition, much of the research is repeated and kept secret, wasting a vast amount of resources and slowing progress. Since the profits are huge, there is enormous pressure to reduce the time to market and this encourages biased research and cut-backs on the necessary testing strategies. The FDA is there precisely to address these pressures and maintain patient safety.
So for all sorts of reasons, big pharma is hardly trustworthy as the champion of patient interests. But does that necessarily put us in the alternative medicine camp? Absolutely not.
The pharmaceutical industry, for all its faults, relies on the scientific investigation of the pharmacological properties of materials related to the treatment of diagnosed illnesses. It is based on science, establishing to a demonstrable standard, that it is working with facts. Clinical trials of the drugs have to show, in unbiased, peer-reviewed research, that they have an impact significantly greater than the placebo effect. In other words, they have to prove themselves to be effective.
Now there are all kinds of problems with some of this research. Institutes sponsored by the pharma companies can be attacked as being biased, the research may focus on the commercially advantageous rather than the medically expedient, and so on. But at bottom, it's based on identifying real causes, real effects.
Now contrast that with alternative medicine where the explanations stop at the point of a fanciful theory, where we never get close to evidence, where we rely only on customer testimonials, where we don't even see controlled trials. When someone suggests homeopathy or Reiki as an alternative to pharmaceuticals, they are not just rejecting the conventional drug industry. They are placing their reliance on unproven and irrational theories. They are rejecting not just the pharma companies, but science as a whole. They confuse the two.
Having major concerns about the way the drug industry works is justified. It is absolutely true that most pharmaceuticals have side-effects and contraindications. It's also true that there have been many major mistakes, drugs that have had to be withdrawn. But it is also true that very many pharmaceutical products have provided major medical help for patients.
The answer to these concerns is not to adopt irrational and unfounded beliefs in mystical solutions, throwing out our critical faculties along with conventional medicines, but to adopt a rational approach to the evidence. We can and should question the motivation of drug companies who focus on maintaining chronic conditions rather than curing them. But that in no way justifies adopting fanciful theories that have no basis in fact. We should subject alternative medicine theories to exactly the same stringent criteria for efficacy as we insist should be applied to the drug companies.
Before permitting the sale of Ayurvedic medicines, we should insist that all of the components are listed, that it is trialled for safety, that it is tested for efficacy using controlled, double-blind, randomized trials. Before making a claim to be able to treat someone by transferring energy with Reiki, we should insist that the effect is demonstrable and measurable. If these treatments don't pass the clinical tests, they shouldn't be sold as treatments. They should instead be sold only as hobby Woo.
It's a convenient diversionary ploy for the peddlers of Woo to accuse anyone critical of their irrationality of supporting the drug industry. But it doesn't wash. Whatever your views about the drug corporations, belief in healing forces, Qi, meridians, chakras, crystals, magnets, and the rest, are irrational and lack evidence.