The Truth Is – Alternative Therapies Provide Nothing More than Placebo Effects (Book Review)


Trick or Treatment by Singh & Ernst

Dr. Simon Singh and Professor Edzard Ernst team up in Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial (2008) to bust the myths of the effectiveness of some of the most popular complementary and alternative treatments. Ernst’s impressive occupational and education history make him far more than qualified to be the one to take on this task. He was formerly a clinical doctor and studied homeopathy. Singh has a Ph.D. in particle physics and is a New York Times bestselling author. Trick or Treatment was written in response to His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales’ request to have alternative treatments examined closely for their efficacy based on scientific testing. Ernst and Singh put together an impressive lineup of reasons why unorthodox and ancient treatments such as acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and herbal medicine are mainly nothing more than a placebo and also come with risks.

This controversial stand on alternative treatments has me convinced, as I am a scientific-based kind of believer – especially when it comes to healthcare, risks and providing false hope. I am a cancer survivor and have done my due diligence of researching treatments and cures, both orthodox and integrative. I do sway sometimes into the “fantasy” and “wishful thinking” camp when it comes to some of the energy healing modalities, such as Spiritual, Reiki, Chakras and Pendulum (or dowsing) healing. I consider myself very open-minded, and if there are little costs and little risks involved, I am willing to give anything a try.

The book is quite repetitive on some points, mainly, that alternative therapies don’t work. It also seemed to be one big advertisement for St. John’s Wort, an herbal medicine that has been proven to treat mild to moderate depression. There was also some support for “fish oil” to combat inflammation in arthritis.

I liked the fact that Ernst has a history in homeopathy and he took the time to research many of the alternative and complementary therapies according to scientific-based evidence. Many of these therapies have been studied and he has dug up the dirt and given us a couple quick reference tools to refer to. For example, he has two pages of “Herbal Medicine Ratings” and cautions people that even though these are categorized as “natural” remedies, they are not always safe. He also strongly urges people to let their doctor know what herbs they are taking as they can interfere with pharmaceuticals. His second guide will be discussed below.

There are many references throughout the book giving examples of how people with cancer often seek alternative therapies (or at least are recommended by others to seek them). For example, the often-recommended “natural anti-cancer” treatment of laetrile (apricot pits) has been used and promoted since the nineteenth century. Due to scientific rigors, laetrile has since been labelled as “quackery” due to its ineffectiveness and risky side effects. Although this information is out there, people continue to use it to this day. This is true for many other alternative treatments.

The authors list ten culprits why these unproven and disproven treatments continue to be used, promoted and wrongfully touted as effective. It is an actual eye-opener, especially when we realize the power of the media, universities and alternative gurus such as Deepak Chopra and Dr. Andrew Weil.

There is an impressive “Rapid Guide to Alternative Therapies” which has about 35 different modalities covering many popular and not-so-popular techniques and gadgets people are using (e.g., crystals, magnets, special diets). The authors include a definition, background, evidence and conclusion and reassure the reader these therapies have been rigorously investigated against scientific evidence and meta-analyses where available.

This is a well-written book which has helped me open my eyes to the reasons why these alternative therapies are still around, despite the truth, that they are nothing more than placebos (and some come with risks that are rarely talked about). Placebos that are harmless offer nothing more than psychological benefits. Where there is belief and hope that something will work, it most likely will. That’s the power of the mind at work. If nothing else, it will provide the person with a sense of hope for the future, a feeling of wellness and a certain level of comfort that there is something “magical” at work. As long as there are little risks, little costs and big rewards, people will continue to seek out these treatments. Unfortunately there are some very expensive “treatments” as well, and charlatans and quacks are taking advantage of people when they are vulnerable.

Some people feel that doing something is better than doing nothing – as the placebo effect works in mysterious ways.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know the truth about alternative medicine and would rather put their efforts, resources and hope into reliable, scientific-based, effective medical treatments and cures.

The other book I read on this topic came up with the same conclusion about the placebo effect – Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine by Paul A. Offit.

Angela G. Gentile



Angela G. Gentile  MSW, RSW is a clinical social worker and author of the book, “Caring for a Husband with Dementia: The Ultimate Survival Guide”, “A Book About Burnout: One Social Worker’s Tale of Survival” and the “Dementia Caregiver Solutions” app for iPhone and iPad. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba with her husband and has two adult children. She is creator of the Facebook communities – “Aging Well for Women” as well as “Living Well With and After Cancer” For more information, visit:


2 thoughts on “The Truth Is – Alternative Therapies Provide Nothing More than Placebo Effects (Book Review)

  1. Del Rowold says:

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say superb blog!


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