Suckers: how alternative medicine makes fools of us all (Harvill Secker) by Rose Shapiro.

For many years, the scientific community has watched the rise of shamanism in our culture with a weary shrug. You can’t really blame them: whenever they suggest that there’s no evidence for homeopathy, or that it might not actually be a very good idea to self-medicate with St Johns Wort when you use an oral contraceptive, they receive a barrage of abuse from people who simply don’t want to know. Scientists are often, in my experience, charming, funny and brilliant, but somehow in the media they become abrasive, shrill and out of touch. If they suggest that science has all the answers they’re viewed as egomaniacal lunatics and, when they concede its limitations, they’re told that their science is no more valid than someone else’s beliefs. It’s a lot like the evolution/creation fight – science can’t convince religion, because proof denies faith, which is, for the faithful, poor form.

This is a pity on many levels, only one of which is that Rose Shapiro’s excellent book, Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools Of Us All, won’t be read by the people who would most benefit from it. It’s a potted history of alternative medicine, as well as a thorough rebuttal of it, and her research is both fascinating and illuminating. Did you know that traditional Chinese medicine, described so often as dating back thousands of years, was actually a rag-bag of ideas put together under Chairman Mao to try to fill in the gaps left by a shortage of “the superior new medicine”? Me neither.

And the history of alternative medicine isn’t as huggy as you might think: a homeopathic pesticide was tried in Germany in 1924 – the skin, spleen and testes of rabbits were turned to ashes and then sprayed over farmland to apparently successful effect. Or perhaps they’d just cremated all the rabbits in the area. Anyway, so successful was the leporine experiment that, according to Shapiro, it was later decided to see if the same technique would work with “the potentised ashes of the same parts of young Jews”. I wonder if water has a memory of that?

Shapiro concedes that the biggest consumers of alternative medicine are middle-aged, middle-class women. But they’re educated enough to know what they’re paying for and if they prefer to spend money on an aromatherapist than a stiff gin, it’s hard to cry too many tears for them. Since the average amount of time a patient can speak to a GP before interruption is 23 seconds, it’s easy to see why someone might find it worthwhile to bung fifty quid to a reflexologist just to chat for an hour. As Shapiro notes, we have a grave suspicion of mental illness in this country and many people would feel it a sign of weakness to visit a psychotherapist. So it’s perfectly possible that the foot massage is just a cover for the opportunity to talk about your problems in all their banal detail, without boring the pants off everyone who used to love you.

Shapiro reserves her real fury for the snake-oil merchants who knowingly prey on the weak: terminal cancer is a favourite. After all, the dying will often believe anything. She reveals case after case where someone has been talked out of chemotherapy or palliative care by a quack with a big bank balance. Their defining characteristic is to peddle a “cure” that mainstream medicine doesn’t want you to know about, in case they lose business. If you think that only the absurdly foolish could believe such a thing, she offers a chilling statistic – the American Cancer Society found that 27 per cent of respondents agreed that the medical establishment was suppressing a cure for cancer. Another 14 per cent thought that might be true. Shapiro may be fighting a losing battle, but we should be on her side.