What does a consumer health specialist do?
Health education is my specialty, so I'm interested in health behavior, why people do what they do, and particularly, why people believe in things that science can't verify. And so in health education, we basically deal with health behavior. And then consumer health being my specialty, I look at if from the marketplace because, after all, most of our health behavior we work out in the marketplace by what we buy and what we don't buy.
Would you like to see standard and alternative medicine peacefully co-exist?
Should we have science evidence-based medicine? And then should we also allow for traditional medicines like Chinese acupuncture, Ayurvedic, maybe American Indian medicine -- something that has a long tradition of use, but even though there's no science behind it, people do it because it's part of their culture. And I say, no, what we really should have, because we can do it, is the science of the possible. There ought to be a standard for products and services and these other things. If something can be found from there that can be proven safe and effective for a special purpose, it becomes part of standard medicine. I don't think we really have room for plural medicine like we do pluralism in religion and in politics, which you have to have, because that's based on opinion. But this is something you can apply the scientific method to, and to fail to do that is to fail to live up to what human beings can do.
What's your definition of alternative medicine?
We've had a definition of alternative medicine for 20 years at Stanford, and it is methods that are not likely to work, methods that do not work, and methods that are yet to be proved or might work, but we don't know.
What's the future of alternative medicine?
I don't use the term alternative medicine unless I'm answering a question because I call them, in general, sectarian systems, which are systems of medicine that are not scientific and that have ideological basis or cultural basis. They have not been proved to work or have already been proved not to work or are not likely to work. So we have sectarian systems and anomalous methods, and the future for these is that sectarian systems, I think, will eventually disappear. We'll be left with a number of anomalous methods, things people think up and invent for themselves and then try to impose those on the public. Eventually most of them will be disproved, but they will have a following and that's the way the world is. Different kinds of people will believe in different things.
What are the key developments in your field?
I think one of the most important things that's happened in the last decade that's continuing to happen is the fact that we're now giving more attention to the natural and traditional kinds of treatments that are out there that have been known to work for many, many years, but have never been given the opportunity to be tested under rigorous scientific criteria. So that's changed. And that's how we discovered penicillin. Most of the major drugs that have been successfully used over the last century were discovered as a result of anecdotal use that was repeated by providers who were competent and reliable.
Does the public understand anecdotal methods of care?
I don't think that the public understands it at all. And the definitions of what's scientific and what isn't scientific are often mixed. They're often quite variable, and they are not really presented to the public in a way that they can make good use of the data. You know the bottom line is that you don't have to have a scientific study to know something works. But you do need to have reliable evidence.