Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:

Observations Reality Check

Assaulting alternative medicine: worthwhile or witch hunt?

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 15 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1075

Rapid Response:

Re: Assaulting alternative medicine: worthwhile or witch hunt?


From both Ray Moynihan’s interesting article [1] and the ensuing rapid response letters in the BMJ, it is apparent that there is a visceral dislike of alternative medicine coupled with a strong streak of intolerance among some health care professionals.

If people trust in alternative medicine and believe that it is of benefit to them, they should be free to use it. And, if they wish to ignore the lack of scientific evidence, then that is their business. Provided they pay for treatment, their choices have nothing to do with anyone else.

Why, then, can’t the opponents of alternative medicine leave it at that? Why are they so driven to eradicate alternative medicine? Is it because they consider it their duty to purge society of false beliefs? Perhaps that explains their demand that university departments teaching alternative medicine be disbanded. But there is an obvious problem: a similar case may be made against many other disciplines, not least to large parts of conventional medicine. [2] Where, exactly, is the line to be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable courses?

Or is it, as suggested by some correspondents, all about stopping a waste of tax-payers’ money? In these straitened times, this may have some appeal but, again, the argument is rather one-sided. Closing some departments carrying out conventional research – that is, research based on questionable methodologies producing results that make little, if any, difference to the lives of patients [2] – would produce much greater cost savings than anything achieved by shutting down courses in alternative medicine, not to mention putting an end to squandering public money on worthless drugs and other interventions.

I hold no brief for alternative medicine. But is it really more deserving of censure than those areas of conventional medicine based on dubious methods and false claims of efficacy?

James Penston


1. Moynihan R. Assaulting alternative medicine: worthwhile or witch hunt? BMJ 2012;344;e1075.

2. Penston J. Stats.con – How we’ve been fooled by statistics-based research in medicine. The London Press. London, November 2010.

Competing interests: No competing interests

27 February 2012
James Penston
Consultant Physician/Gastroenterologist
Scunthorpe General Hospital
Cliff Gardens, Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire DN15 7BH