What does a car and complementary medicine have in common? More than you know!

How to explain the complex world of complementary, alternative and integrative medicine in simple terms?

Recently the supplement company Blackmores opened their own Wellness centre where your brainwaves can be analysed upon which a “qualified” naturopath will prescribe you your much needed “meds”. Blackmores is also planning to place naturopaths in pharmacies across Sydney in order to “integrate” their products with conventional medicine. Inspired by these developments I decided to write this analogy in order to try and make sense out of this madness.

Mass intrigue and fascination

One afternoon I was strolling down the street when I came across a glitzy new car showroom. Fascinated and intrigued by the stunning car designs and the low prices, I suddenly found myself in the packed showroom talking to a young, very healthy looking, salesperson.  He started his sales pitch by ensuring me that these new cars have taken the world by storm. In fact, it is so popular that very soon a salesperson will be stationed in every car showroom across town – even in showrooms of other car manufacturers! While still contemplating the logic of this, he explained that the main advantage giving them the edge over their competitors, was that their cars are powered by the “indespectus” engine. Although this sounded impressive, and while trying to figure out what the word meant, he started to list all the amazing benefits. The indespectus engine is the sole contributor to the cars revolutionary low maintenance costs, making it the most cost effective car by a mile.  The car also comes with an exceptional safety record with very few injuries or fatalities recorded.  And this is not all! The whole car is manufactured from recyclable material making it all natural, and natural is good. “We are natural; the car is natural – it is a perfect fit!” On top of that it does not even need a single drop of dirty old fossil fuels. After this barrage of astonishing facts the salesman pompously started with his final assault; “It is cheap, it is cost effective, it is safe, it is all natural, …..” while I was starting to think that this is all too good to be true.

Some apprehension and a change of tactics

Although the design of the car was absolutely beautiful with all the modern add-ons one can hope for, and even with all the benefits as listed by the salesman, I was still not convinced. Something was amiss. The word indespectus was still bothering me. Doesn’t spectus mean “visible” and inde “in-” making the new car technology “invisible”. Is this possible? Are they knowingly selling the public a car without an engine? Noticing my apprehension, the salesman quickly changed tack and made a stern reference to the thousands of people dying on our roads in conventional cars. They are not only dangerous, they are also expensive and made of unnatural synthetic materials and thus they do not really work. He assured me that conventional car manufacturers are only there to make huge profits and therefore they are dreading this new innovative indespectus technology – it will simply put them out of business.  He continued with the cherry on the cake – these cars are also endorsed and used by royalty, movie and sports stars and even your odd university professor! Knowing that these people are actually being paid in one way or the other to endorse an engineless car, I decided to risk a critical question. “Will this car get me to hospital in case of a medical emergency?”

Not used to being asked such critical questions and having exhausted his armoury of sales tricks, some experience was urgently needed to clinch this deal. An older very healthy looking manager with an award winning PhD in various indespectus car designs, thus arrived at the scene. After some deliberation the answer from the manager was a crystal clear, yes! Our indespectus cars will be able to get you to hospital, followed by some gobbledygook that sounded like “evidence-based” and “a growing body of scientific literature”. The manager assured me that I have absolutely nothing to worry about and continued that there is scientific evidence that when your indespectus car is towed by a conventional car, called complementing or integrating with a conventional car, then you will get to hospital in time. And it even gets better. Being towed means that you still have all the added benefits of the indespectus car and thus you might feel slightly better than the person driving the tow truck.

Another salesman, also known as “the disciple”, who overheard his colleagues desperate bid to sell me an engineless car, joined the conversation by asserting that there is a growing body of evidence that the indespectus engine can power the car independently and hence it is a viable alternative to a conventional car. Not only that, the car will get you to hospital way faster and, importantly, without any of the risks associated with a conventional car. Being a scientist and not wanting to upset “the disciple” too much I responded that “this is just not possible and it is highly improbable bull….” – but the disciple condescendingly finished my sentence for me with “science cannot explain everything”, followed by boastfully claiming that sometime in future a new revolutionary style of science will be able to explain the power of propulsion of the indespectus engine. It is only a matter of time!

The sales team stood perplexed and looked a bit dejected because their sales pitch, in which they received extensive training for many years at some universities, is usually enough to convince just about everyone to buy an indespectus powered car and to promote it to their neighbours, family and even their own children. But for me as an unbiased scientist it just showed too many similarities with “the Emperor’s new clothes”.

The few that flee

Sensing that the sales team are getting worried about the impact that I am having on other customers, and hence their sales figures, and that they are planning an exit strategy to escort this troublemaker off the premises, I decided to make a run for it.  Fleeing the packed showroom, I could not help but think of the impact that this engineless car will have on society. Is it not maybe better to first show that the car works before you sell it? Or, as I suspect, are they using their sales figure as their main “scientific evidence” that the car actually works. And why do so few people look under the bonnet and see the engineless car for what it is? How then can I convince politicians, regulatory agencies, universities and the public that an engineless car will not be able to get you to hospital, faster and without any risks, as compared to a conventional car? Or will it again take a young child, without any vested emotional or financial interests, to tell the Emperor that he is naked or that the indespectus car does not have an engine.

There is an unknown number of skeletons around the world sitting in an engineless car of people who were unable to get to hospital in time while there is a known number of people who died in a car crash on their way to hospital. The death toll of the former is arguably higher than the latter. The main benefit of a conventional car is that it will take you from point A to point B, granted there will always be risks involved but without this benefit there is a nothing. The take home message? Buying an engineless car to make you feel better, with its superior upholstery or sound system, for if you have a headache or if you are down in the dumps is causing other people to die! Why? Because the industry uses their sales figure, and you are part of it, as their primary weapon to infiltrate universities, do mass marketing and use it as their primary “evidence” that the car can actually move. If so many people buy it then surely it must be working! – no it does not work! Stop buying it!

Question is; does this analogy work?