Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter

We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.

Had Jennifer Drayton Austin’s story (“Natural Causes,” 12/15/00) happened when she was 20 or 30 years younger, the cry of “child abuse” would have gone up in the minds of most reasonable people before they had gotten halfway through the article. Hank Jones and Yemi Bates-Jones would have been called at least irresponsible by some—and worse by many more. Her parents would likely have been lumped into the same pile, and people would openly question how they could have been so uncaring or ignorant with regard to

their child.

But Jennifer was not a child; she was an adult. That passage of time changes her from being a victim of incompetence to a patient. Hank and Yemi are awarded the title “practitioners,” and their beliefs now get some degree of shielding from fundamental questions because they fall under the “alternative therapy” blanket. And everyone gets to go on with life—except, of course, Jennifer.

Few would step forward to advocate removing choice and control from the lives of adults. Making informed decisions about one’s medical treatment is a primary freedom that we should all be able to enjoy. And what should be seen as a threat to this freedom is the overwhelming amount of misinformation, and even disinformation, cluttering up the airwaves, bookshelves, and stores

these days.

With an educated populace in America, it is no longer enough to say, “And then the good fairies come…” when explaining how a supposedly new approach works. Today, the public is bombarded with all types of ideas peppered with sensible-sounding terms such as “energy therapy” and “magnetic alignment.” For maximum effect, the word “quantum” should be sprinkled in as well. When thus expressed to the average consumer, “alternative” approaches gain an almost palpable sense of authority and certainty. That there are often no verifiable, reproducible studies to support the claims of Treatment X is something that is rarely disclosed by the person or book that puts forward the idea.

The dissemination of junk science is not limited to dark basements. Many pseudoscientific ideas and practices are spreading into mainstream medicine, where competition for dollar-paying customers and tight budgets are forcing all manner of compromises in the quality of care for patients. By adding understudied treatment regimens to placate a patient’s demands for real treatment solutions, even further harm can be done, if not medically then in dollars wasted. The way to fix this problem is to rethink the concept of today’s medibusiness, not to sell snake oil to sick people.

I would like to challenge the George Washington Center for Integrative Medicine—as well as every other person or group that would recommend, pursue, or profit by treatments outside the mainstream of scientific medicine—to accept no treatment on the basis of its antiquity, its use in exotic places, the charisma of its advocate(s), its anecdotally based popularity, how it comes across on television, its placebo effect on a few selected patients, the number of books sold on the subject, or even if its debunking causes personal or professional inconvenience. When a new (or “ancient”) practice emerges that necessitates the existence of previously unknown/unseen organs, “energy fields,” or other such agents, a fundamental requirement before its acceptance and widespread use should be proof by means of proper studies that are clear, verifiable, reproducible, and without significant error or bias regarding the validity and effectiveness of the practice. There may very well be some grains of wheat mixed into what has already been proved to be a great deal of chaff. In any case, the public deserves to be informed about what is and is not valid as well as what is simply unknown at this time.

I make these demands because people I care dearly about as well as myself are likely to have to make important, informed health-care decisions throughout our lives, and nobody should have to suffer the same tragically misguided fate as Jennifer Drayton Austin.

College Park