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The World Health Organization Has a Pseudoscience Problem

In trying to ensure everyone has access to healthcare, the WHO promotes homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, and rhythmical embrocations

The World Health Organization has a definition of the soul.

It is not technically theirs, but it appears in the glossary of one of their many official documents. The soul, according to the WHO, is derived from the astral organization, which is another term they have had to define. The astral organization, you see, is distinct from the etheric organization. That same document, coming out of the world’s foremost authority on global health, mentions such esoteric concepts as rhythmical embrocation, a type of energy healing that involves rhythmic strokes on the body.

At a time when the WHO is accused by conspiracy theorists of being in the pocket of Bill Gates and using mass vaccination as a nefarious scheme to control humanity, it’s easy to forget that there are genuine reasons to criticize the WHO. Its mission to ensure everyone on Earth has access to healthcare has led to its legitimization of prescientific belief systems and of thoroughly debunked practices. The WHO doesn’t stop at validating these pseudomedicines; it wants them integrated with evidence-based medicine.

And this push is not an afterthought. It’s part of a WHO multiyear strategic plan.

A worrisome road paved with good intentions

The World Health Organization was founded in 1948, in the aftermath of World War II, as a specialized agency of the newly-formed United Nations. It has a decision-making body called the World Health Assembly, which is attended by delegates from all Member States. The Constitution of the WHO outlines its principles: that enjoyment of the highest standard of health is a fundamental human right, and that unequal promotion of health and control of diseases in different countries is a danger. Basically, health for all, regardless of race, beliefs, or socioeconomic condition.

Ensuring that everyone on the planet has access to healthcare is a colossal task with no easy solution. How do you quickly provide medical care in places where physicians are scarce?

In May 2013, the WHO released its Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023, which continued a questionable mission begun in previous strategies and declarations. In this document, the organization argues that what it refers to as traditional and complementary medicine or T&CM is “an important and often underestimated part of health care.” What does it mean by T&CM? Practices that mostly emerged hundreds to thousands of years ago, before humanity understood much about chemistry and human biology and well before scientific rigour was applied to test the mettle of health claims. Humans have been getting sick for a very long time. Our species has tried a lot of different ways of healing over the millennia, with most being failures.

What the WHO sees in T&CM—interventions that include Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and naturopathy—is an easy way to fulfill a goal. Training enough medical doctors and building enough hospitals to cover the globe seems like an impossible task. Instead, let’s acknowledge the presence of healers of various stripes, with little attention given to the kind of care they provide.

The WHO wants the integration of these prescientific healing practices into national health systems as a way to contribute to universal health coverage, and the arguments it musters for this integration are sloppy and predictable. T&CM is affordable, we are told. This is debatable, as practices like chiropractic and acupuncture commonly depend on regular “maintenance” treatments for life, and affordability is of course no gauge of effectiveness. T&CM is popular, the WHO argues, which is a faulty argument. Bloodletting was widespread for centuries, not because it worked well but because there was little else to do. The WHO also carves out a niche for T&CM in addressing chronic health issues and providing individualized, holistic care, which is a copy-and-paste job from reams of marketing material aimed at glorifying so-called alternative medicine.

The WHO’s poorly argued strategy to convince Member States to integrate prescientific practices into their healthcare system has led them down a worrisome road paved with good intentions. After all, how do you distinguish a traditional healer using “best practices” (whatever that means) from a charlatan? The WHO’s answer has been to release benchmarks for training in the various T&CM interventions it supports.

One of these benchmark documents is for anthroposophic medicine, a bizarre system conjured up in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner and Ita Wegman in which health emerges from an equilibrium between “the four formative forces and the threefold nature of the human being.” The definition of the soul comes from this document. It includes a glossary of anthroposophic medical concepts, such as “tria principia,” which are processes that are inspired by salt, sulfur and mercury. This entire document was financially supported by the International Federation of Anthroposophic Medical Associations in Switzerland, and while a small disclaimer reminds us that it does not imply that the WHO endorses anthroposophic medicine, its effectiveness or its safety, it is hard to read the document and see the disclaimer as anything other than generic handwaving. In its first annex, we are confronted with a sample training curriculum that includes learning about the four classical elements (earth, water, air, and warmth), cosmic forces, as well as vegetabilized metals, where pulverized metals are added to the soil in which allegedly medicinal plants grow to produce a transformed remedy. We are not far from alchemy, here.

Another WHO benchmark document focuses on naturopathy and was written by the then director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology. Benchmarks for training include homeopathy, a thoroughly discredited tradition that dilutes ingredients out of existence; iridology, a pseudoscience that claims ill health in the body can be diagnosed by looking at the eye; and detoxification, a mainstay of wellness culture that is quick to blame any health problem on ill-defined toxins.

These notions, coming from the world’s leading authority on health, are disturbing, but they are simply the culmination of the integrative medicine rebranding effort.

Regulation before sound evidence

The vast web of nonscientific healing practices has seen its branding change over the years. “Alternative medicine” implied an either/or choice that was hard to justify in official discourse in the wake of medicine’s progress. Some practices were then referred to as “complementary.” One of the more recent and successful labels affixed on top of these disparate and often contradictory practices is “integrative medicine.” The idea is that evidence-based medicine, with its surgeries, medical imagery, and pharmaceuticals, is insufficient. Chiropractic, homeopathy, and acupuncture are likewise incomplete, so the two halves need to be integrated to provide maximum benefits.

This integrative movement has made headway into the International Classification of Diseases, a gold standard developed by the WHO and used by doctors for billing and statistics purposes, which now includes official codes for diagnoses like “liver qi stagnation” and “fire harassing heart spirit pattern.” These are derived from traditional Chinese medicine (more on that later), have nothing to do with our scientific understanding of the human body, but they are being given validity by the WHO, which is how we end up with disease code SF7K for “anxiety damaging the spleen system pattern.”

We at the OSS have written a lot about so-called alternative and complementary medicine in the past. Some of these practices, like homeopathy, are so profoundly unscientific that their continued adoption can mainly be explained by scientific illiteracy and reassuring marketing. Others, like acupuncture, have had their messy history revised and rectified, and scientists have tried to find scientific explanations for how they may work. These prescientific systems, often predicated on a single cause of all diseases and a sole type of intervention, seem to work because of placebo effects, like the immune system doing its job, fluctuations in symptoms, and patients simultaneously using evidence-based treatments. The people who have not been helped by these modalities are simply not as loud as the ones who improved, which is why testimonials act like a valuable currency.

These anecdotes are then backed by studies because modern patients do have an appetite for the credibility of science. These studies tend to be of low quality, designed to produce noise that can be spotlit as promising. Larger, more rigorous studies show no difference from the placebo arm, which has led to an example of revisionist history: these prescientific interventions work through the placebo effect, we are told, a bit of theatre to convince the mind to unleash the body’s powerful healing abilities. The use of a placebo in research, meant to remove the effect of everything but the active ingredient, has been redefined as proving the effectiveness of what is essentially magic.

The WHO’s Traditional Medicine Strategy is peppered with allusions to testing these interventions for their effectiveness. Indeed, the number one difficulty their Member States note regarding the regulation of T&CM is the lack of research data. These healing practices must be supported by evidence, the WHO agrees, but what kind of evidence? “While there is much to be learned from controlled clinical trials,” they note, “other evaluation methods are also valuable,” including “patterns of use.” This is a worrying way to promote popularity as an indication of validity.

It could be argued that the WHO is trying to elevate the bar for these pseudoscientific modalities by asking for a minimum amount of regulation and standardization. But how do you regulate magic? As Professor Edzard Ernst, who has dedicated his career to keeping alternative medicine accountable to the same standards as medicine itself, has recently argued, most of these alternatives are not evidence based and their practitioners are unable to follow basic ethical principles. Informed consent is difficult to get when you administer energy healing. You would have to disclose that the intervention lacks plausibility and good evidence for its effectiveness. Ernst’s solution is that sound evidence must come before regulation. But given that the WHO doesn’t blink an eye when it mentions homeopathy in one of its benchmark documents, I don’t think the organization has given much thought to the question of plausibility and effectiveness.

Dr. David Gorski, an oncologist and science blogger, has covered the WHO’s embrace of quackery many times in the past, pointing out how interesting it is that the people arguing for medical integration make no mention of European humoral therapy and our need to integrate it into common practice. While anthroposophy’s four classical elements and acupuncture’s rivers of qi are seen as conducive to good healthcare, the debunked idea that phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile determine our health has been ignored by the WHO. They are all antiquated notions, but the ones we buried are not being resurrected by the WHO. Strange.

There is, however, a troubling parallel, also identified by Dr. Gorski, between the WHO’s desire to integrate magic into healthcare and what Chairman Mao Zedong did to the practice of medicine during the Chinese Communist Revolution.

“A great contribution to the world”

Chairman Mao had a problem. His forces had won control of mainland China in 1949, but access to healthcare was difficult, especially outside of the big cities. Medical doctors were in short supply. What could he do to improve the situation?

He decided to revive and reimagine the many healing traditions that had sprung up in China over the millennia, practices that were “a mixture of demonology, astrology, yin-yang five phases theory, classic texts, folk wisdom, and personal experience.” Some of these interventions, like acupuncture and the burning of plants on the body known as moxibustion, had been banned decades prior as modern medicine ascended, and the totality of these practices could not be said to have ever been standardized. There was no such thing as Traditional Chinese Medicine.

But out of political necessity, Chairman Mao preached for the integration of a revised and streamlined version of these antiquated practices with modern medicine. He wanted doctors of Western medicine to learn Chinese medicine, and Chinese medicine doctors to use science to explain the principles behind their interventions. The ultimate goal was full integration. “That would be a great contribution to the world,” he told one of his personal physicians. “Even though I believe we should promote Chinese medicine,” he continued, “I personally do not believe in it. I don’t take Chinese medicine. Don’t you think that is strange?”

Half a century later, the WHO is continuing in the footsteps of Chairman Mao, promoting the integration of prescientific and often discredited ideas with actual medicine. They seem to believe it would be a great contribution to the world. I beg to differ.


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