Self Study: Naturopathy's Secret Weapon

By John "Birdman" Bryant


As a sort of introduction to what might be called my philosophy of medicine, I offer the following essay. It was first published in the May 1996 issue of The Townsend Letter for Doctors, a major journal of the alternative medical community where I have often published.

There are two kinds of health research, but only one of them is currently recognized by medical science, namely, what I call group study, ie, studies of groups of people who are subjected to some form of procedure, diet, supplementation, etc. Group studies have obvious value, at least when competently done, altho there are certain important problems inherent in these studies which I have discussed elsewhere, including proper choice of variables and the need to replace double-blind with multiple-blind studies (See "Science and 'Antiscience'", Townsend Letter, August/September 1994: 906ff; "A Real Eye-Opener on Double-Blind Studies", Townsend Letter, August/September 1995: 112). However, the fact that group studies are not -- or not consciously -- combined with the second form of research is perhaps the most important flaw in allopathic medicine, and one which is actually leading to its collapse in the face of competition with naturopathy. This second form of research what I call self study, by which I mean the process in which an individual subjects his own body to some form of procedure, diet, supplementation, etc, to see if it works for him. This procedure, of course, is different from that of various medical heroes, who subjected themselves to such things as yellow fever, AIDS and other dread diseases in order to prove something for others: Rather, self study is merely the way an individual can find out if the result of some group study -- or his grandma's advice, or his own intuition -- has any relevance for his own personal well-being. Self study is important not merely for the obvious reason that group studies are irrelevant to what works for some particular individual, but also because the individual is the one person with the greatest interest in promoting his own health -- unlike his doctor, whose interest inclines to collecting his fee -- and because the individual has access to "research data" (his own feelings and reactions) not accessible to the white-coated set.

But there is an important caveat for those involved in self study, namely, what the famous Harvard psychologist BF Skinner called "the development of superstition". Skinner's famous experiment, performed on my favorite animal -- pigeons -- is one which should be read, marked, learned and inwardly digested by not only those involved in self study, but also religionists, astrologizers, superstitionists, allopaths and others of their ilk. What Skinner did was to place hungry pigeons in a so-called Skinner box, which would drop food grains to the pigeon at random times. What Skinner found is that, if food were dropped when a pigeon was performing some particular action (eg, strutting, grooming, scratching, etc), the food would "reinforce" the behavior, so that the hungry pigeon would tend to perform such behavior in order to get more food. Thus a pigeon, after some time in a Skinner box, would be found to be performing some action over and over, thus indicating that it had developed a "superstition" about how it could cause food to appear -- a superstition which would become more and more strongly reinforced as the pigeon was "rewarded" for this behavior by the random appearance of food. (Note: Skinner was a behaviorist, and thus did not believe in the existence of mentality apart from its behavioral manifestations; hence superstition to him meant merely "behaving superstitiously". Please don't ask me if he knew the difference between when he was awake and when he was not.)

One does not have to be a rocket scientist to see that Skinnerian reinforcement is the basis of not only superstition and religion, but also all kinds of other misbehaviors, particularly allopathy. That is, a person gets sick, he goes to the doctor, the doctor gives him a pill, he gets well, and Voila! -- he (and the doctor) thinks there is a relation between what the doctor did and the fact that he got well, when in fact there may be no relation and -- as many of us well know -- we would probably have gotten well sooner without the doctor. This situation is exacerbated by the so-called placebo effect, ie, the fact that irrelevant "cures" are successful in curing 1/3 of all diseases anyway -- or at least that 1/3 of us get well after visiting the doctor (please don't ask what happens to the other 2/3).

The lesson of the Skinner box for self study should be obvious, but I will spell it out anyway: Just because you feel better after taking some pill, enduring some regimen, or whatever, this does not necessarily mean that the pill, regimen or whatever had anything to do with your feeling better. Furthermore, in cases where a pill, regimen or whatever is not in fact helpful, one should attempt to determine this fact, not merely because the cost of pillage or whatever can mount up, but also because such therapies may actually be doing some unrecognized kind of harm. Thus in order to purge your life of "naturopathic superstition" you should make a list of your pills, regimens, etc, and then systematically drop each one for awhile to see if it makes any difference. In fact, if you want to be really scientific about it, you could try dropping all possible combinations: For example, if you are taking three different pills, first drop one, then the second, then the third, then the first and second, then the first and third, etc, etc, etc. Following this, you could fool around with different dosages, and in general spend your whole life figuring out what you should be taking, all the while forgetting that what you need now may not be the same thing you needed last year, and isn't science wonderful?

In closing, I would like to make one final point which is also not recognized by allopathic medicine, but which is unconsciously recognized by many engaged in self study, namely, that the best method of curing or preventing disease is to utilize a multiplicity of strategies. What I am getting at here is a lesson from systems theory, to wit, that the best way to prevent a "system" from breaking down is to have a backup system. We see this in hospitals, for example, which generally have backup power systems to insure power in case a squirrel gets into the power company's transformers. In the case of our body "system", the best way to keep it from "going down" is to have multiple backup strategies for staying healthy: For example, we might try to keep healthy both by eating a good diet and by exercising, so that if one strategy doesn't provide optimal health by itself, the other will "take up the slack". Likewise, in order to assure cardiovascular health, we might take both vitamin C and vitamin E, even tho we feel that one of them may be "redundant".

Naturopaths have a great deal to teach allopaths, but allopaths are unlikely to learn anything. One reason for this is because they will probably all die from their own treatments first.

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