NATUROPATHY’S MAIN ARTICLE OF FAITH CANNOT BE VALIDATED
MEDICINE Reliance on vital forces leaves its practices based on beliefs without scientific backing
I“We believe in the Vital Force which has inherent organization, is intelligent and intelligible . . . Our way is to research the mystery and beauty of the life force, in which we have faith.” — American Association of Naturopathic Physicians Convention;
Townsend Letter for Doctors f you really want to upset people, there’s nothing like attacking their faith. And the faith of naturopaths and their patients is certainly the subject of attack, given the B.C. government’s plans to grant naturopaths the authority to prescribe certain drugs.
Critics, when they’re being kind, suggest that there is insufficient evidence of the efficacy of many naturopathic interventions.
When they’re not being kind, critics charge that naturopathy is simply so much pseudoscientific quackery.
Since many, though not all, of these critics are physicians, they’re inevitably accused of propagating a turf war, of trying to keep the practice of medicine to themselves. Naturopaths, such as B.C. Naturopathic Association president Christoph Kind, claim that “naturopathic medicine is substantiated by voluminous research” and that “the scientific education and training that naturopathic physicians receive is no different than the scientific training medical doctors receive.”
Consequently, naturopaths argue that their practices are a valid complement to the practices of medical doctors, though they’re not particularly complimentary of medicine, which they often accuse of placing patients’ health in jeopardy.
A typical statement indicative of this belief is found on the BCNA website: “Many naturopathic protocols have results similar or equal to standard medical treatments, but without the adverse effects and risks.”
In addition to displaying a certain hostility toward medicine, this statement is self-refuting, for, as physician Stephen Barrett says, “Any medication (drug or herb) potent enough to produce a therapeutic effect is potent enough to cause adverse effects.”
It’s also easy to refute the all too frequent claims about the “voluminous research” substantiating naturopathic practices simply by reviewing the literature.
While some naturopathic therapies, such as clinical nutrition and herbal treatments, have been subject to study, there is little scientific support for many other commonly used procedures, including homeopathy, hydrotherapy and iridology.
And if there were evidence for such procedures, then how would naturopathy be different from medicine?
Indeed, if the evidence existed, one would expect medicine to absorb such therapies, much as it absorbed principles of preventive medicine, which naturopathy, to its credit, has long emphasized.
But then we would not have naturopathic and conventional medicine — we would just have medicine. The distinction naturopaths like to highlight is philosophical. As Kind put it, “it is the philosophy behind the application of [the] science that differentiates naturopathic doctors (NDs) and medical doctors.”
Unfortunately, though, that very philosophy effectively destroys naturopathy’s pretensions of being scientific.
One putative philosophical difference, often emphasized by naturopaths, we can write off from the start is that medicine targets symptoms while naturopathy focuses on removing the cause of illness. That this isn’t true is evident from medicine’s use of immunizations, something many naturopaths view with suspicion.
This hostility toward vaccines does, however, lead us to the antiscientific philosophy of naturopathy. As William Jarvis, former professor of public health and preventive medicine at Loma Linda University says, naturopathy’s suspicion of immunizations arises from doubts about the germ theory of disease: “They believe that vitalistic forces are ultimately responsible.”
Naturopaths like to trace their history to Hippocrates and the doctrine of “vis medicatrix naturae.” Although Hippocrates never used this phrase or its Greek equivalent, he did stress that living organisms possess within them the “healing powers of nature,” in an effort to purge Greek medicine of its belief the gods were responsible for health and illness.
These healing powers took on a life of their own, and came to form the basis of a philosophy known as vitalism, which posits the existence of “vital forces,” mysterious and mystical forces possessed by all living organisms. In fact, it was these vital forces that were believed to distinguish living from non-living matter, and they became associated with the four humours (yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood) in western medicine and chi or prana in eastern medicine.
An imbalance of these forces was believed to be the cause of illness, hence it was the physician’s job to rebalance them. This led to western practices such as bleeding patients with an imbalance of blood, and eastern practices such as acupuncture, which supposedly rebalances the flow of chi.
Vitalist theories were also popular in biology and chemistry, but scientific developments — in particular the germ theory of disease and the development of the microscope, which allowed for cellular analysis — soon spelled the end of vitalism.
In retrospect, it’s astonishing that vitalism held sway for so long since it never explained anything. On the contrary, vitalistic forces stood as a kind of marker for our ignorance — in our inability to explain life scientifically, we simply posited the existence of a mysterious life force, something scientifically unexplainable.
In abandoning reliance on weird metaphysical forces and committing itself to a mechanistic, materialistic research program (that is, to science), modern medicine has made great strides in improving health and eliminating disease. But naturopathy, which likes to boast of its long history, seems stuck there.
Indeed, one look at naturopathic literature reveals that long after science consigned vitalism to the dustbin, belief in the life force lives on.
On the website of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, for example, we find a statement which posits the orderliness of nature and then continues, “This dependable orderliness is believed to be guided by a kind of inner wisdom that everyone has. This inner wisdom can be assisted to return a person to their best balance by naturopathic treatments.”
Not to be outdone, the website of the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors speaks of homeopathic remedies, stating: “When carefully matched to the patient they are able to affect the body’s ‘vital force’ and to stimulate the body’s innate healing forces on both the physical and emotional levels, with few side-effects.”
Given this reliance on vital forces, it’s not surprising that naturopaths are big believers in traditional Chinese medicine and its emphasis on the chi.
The CAND website therefore states the following: “The chi of all organs must be in balance, neither too active nor too dormant, for a person to be healthy. The chi of the body’s organs and systems are all connected in meridians or channels that lie just under the skin. A naturopathic doctor will use eastern herbs and acupuncture to assist the body in regulating the chi and achieving balance.”
After making these unscientific and anti-scientific statements, the CAND website nevertheless states that “the naturopathic profession recognizes the value of research and seeks to make appropriate uses of science.”
But evidently aware that naturopathy is not science, it speaks of the “challenge” of finding appropriate research methodologies to investigate naturopathic practices.
Of course, no scientific methodologies will be forthcoming because the life force is not a scientific concept. It’s an article of faith, and one that appeals to many people precisely because it speaks to the existence of something greater than that which science can investigate.
And that means that naturopathy can never become scientific, unless it abandons the very belief that makes it so popular.
The debate between doctors and naturopaths has been raging in British Columbia since the provincial government announced plans to let naturopaths prescribe some drugs.