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'The Magic Feather Effect' Takes a Look at Alternative Medicine

Alternative therapies might be working for reasons we don't fully understand.
Louise Docker, Wikicommons,
Alternative therapies might be working for reasons we don't fully understand.

Acupuncture, herbal remedies, homeopathy, and energy medicine are practices widely dismissed by the mainstream medical establishment as lacking any scientific backing. And yet, many of us know someone with a story of a dramatic recovery attributed to such alternative practices.

Former New York Times reporter Melanie Warner looked into this in her new book The Magic Feather Effect: The Science of Alternative Medicine and the Surprising Power of Belief.

Researchers looking into acupuncture, for example, devised a way to use fake retractable needles and place them in random spots, rather than the spots that an acupuncturist would use.

“What you find with these studies is that there's not a big difference between the people who get the real acupuncture and the fake acupuncture,” Warner said.

However, both the real and fake acupuncture treatments were surprisingly effective at making people feel better.

“So, there are two ways to look at that,” she said.

The skeptics say that acupuncture isn’t valuable. But Warner and others come away with the view that, since alternative therapies often work better than other available treatments, they might be working for reasons we don't fully understand.

Placebo effects and the interaction between the acupuncturist and the person getting the treatment may have more to do with the effectiveness of the treatment than the explanation that the acupuncturist might give, Warner said.

“These are what scientists sometimes call non-specific effects of medicine," she said. "There's thinking among researchers that these aspects are actually very important in treatments.”

Web content produced by Elsa Partan.

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Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.