Complementary and alternative medicine

What is an “altie”? (2006 edition)

About a year ago, I introduced the blogosphere to a term that had become common on certain Usenet newsgroups. I can’t take credit for coining the term, but I think I can take some degree of credit for disseminating it to a wider audience.

That term is “altie,” and has a meaning similar to the term “woo-woo,” in that it describes people who are so militantly pro-alternative medicine and so distrustful of conventional medicine that they will never admit when conventional medicine is effective and refuse ever to concede that any alternative medical practitioner might, just might, possibly be a quack. Part and parcel of being an altie is an anti-intellectual and antiscientific attitude that does not allow a little thing like evidence to sway one from one’s belief in the power of alternative medicine. The term was inspired by the online behavior of certain regulars on About a year before my post, we had even come up with a Jeff Foxworthy-like list of traits of alties (“You might be an altie if…”). Several regulars in m.h.a. contributed, after a regular named Rich Shewmaker got the ball rolling. The post in which I listed some of these traits was arguably the first post in my early blogging career that drew a fair bit of attention, and the term altie seems to have spread far and wide beyond this blog.

I had always been meaning to do a followup post in which I updated the list to include many more characteristics of alties, especially since I’ve drawn the ire of a fair number of them since starting this blog, but amazingly, after well over a year, I’ve never gotten around to it. My move to ScienceBlogs provides me with the perfect excuse to finally get off my behind and do it, and I can’t think of a better way to cap off my first week on ScienceBlogs. Consequently, I took the original list, mixed them up a bit and rewrote some of them, and then added the contributions of others and ideas I came up with myself, and the following is the result.

DISCLAIMER: Before the hate mail and nasty comments start rolling in, please remember that the following traits (and the term “altie”) are not meant to describe all (or even most) users of alternative medicine or people who think certain alternative medicine modalities help them. (Although these people are often mistaken in their faith in alternative medicine, they are to some extent reachable by evidence.) The term “altie” describes a strident, anti-intellectual, and anti-science subset of alt-med users, who tend to make impossibly grandiose claims for their favorite remedy and usually also express a strong distrust (or even hatred) of conventional medicine. So, without further ado, here we go:


  • If you believe that doctors, scientists, and the pharmaceutical companies conspire to suppress your favorite “alternative medicine” modality, you just might be an altie.
  • If you like to claim that science is a religion, you might be an altie (or at the very least a creationist).
  • If you accept without questioning vague and/or poorly documented anecdotes and testimonials as sufficient evidence for you that an “alternative” therapy can produce remarkable results “curing” cancer, heart disease, autism, Alzheimers, heart disease, etc., but routinely brutally nitpick and then dismiss well-designed randomized, double-blinded Phase III clinical studies for conventional medicine, you just might be an altie.
  • If you believe that liver “flushes” actually cause gallstones to be “flushed” from your gallbladder and remove “toxins” from your liver, you just might be an altie. (Actually, if you believe that liver “flushes” do anything except give you exceptionally stinky diarrhea, you are almost certainly an altie.)
  • If you believe that coffee enemas and megadoses of carrot juice can cure cancer, you just might be an altie.)
  • If you make claims for a product or therapy like, “strengthens the immune system,” “restores balance,” “detoxifies the liver,” “cleanses the colon,” or “cleanses the blood,” you may be an altie.
  • If you are impressed by such claims when made by others, you just might be an altie.
  • If you do most of your “scientific” research on websites that exist to sell “alternative health” products, you might be an altie.
  • If you believe that a chiropractor can manipulate your spine without touching you and cure your back pain, you are probably an altie.
  • If you carefully avoid any criticism of any “alternative medicine” practitioner, product, or theory, regardless of how mind-numbingly obviously unscientific (homeopathy, for example), illogical, internally inconsistent, or fraudulent it may be, you might be an altie.
  • If you accept or agree with every vilification of medicine and science as The Truth, regardless of the source or of how obviously irrational, without basis, or unjustified the vilification is, you might just be an altie.
  • If you are utterly convinced that autism is a “misdiagnosis” for mercury poisoning, despite the fact that epidemiological and basic scientific studies do not support this hypothesis, that the number of new autism cases in the U.S. has not shown a sign of falling since thimerosal was removed from vaccines three years ago (ditto Denmark, where thimerosal was removed in the early 1990’s), and that autism does not share the symptomotology of mercury poisoning, you just might be an altie.
  • If you believe that changing the bond angle of water can cure cancer (or that a simple distillation and electrochemical apparatus actually can change the bond angle of water), you just might be an altie.
  • If you believe that Hulda Clark is being unjustly “persecuted” by “conventional medicine” and/or “the government” because she is a “threat,” you are very likely an altie.
  • If you believe that Hulda Clark has ever cured anybody of cancer or AIDS in her life and that her clinic is a place of hope, you just might be an altie.
  • If you believe that a liver fluke can cause all the diverse kinds of cancer out there and that “zapping” that fluke can cure all cancer and AIDS, you just might be an altie.
  • If you absolutely, positively cannot ever admit that a conventional therapy, any conventional medical therapy, can cure a disease, any disease, you may well be an altie.
  • If you believe that vaccines “don’t work,” that they “hurt the immune system,” or that they are a major cause autism or other chronic diseases, you just might be an altie.
  • If you routinely use or Cure Zone as sources for medical information, you just might be an altie.
  • If you regularly post to the message boards on Cure Zone, you’re very likely to be an altie. Explanation: Cure Zone’s message boards are highly moderated. (Translation: censored.) Skeptical posts, no matter how polite, unabusive, or well-reasoned, are often summarily deleted by the moderators. If a skeptic persists in questioning the alt-med dogma there, he/she will usually eventually be banned by the moderators.
  • If you think should be a sunny little support group where true believers in alternative healthcare share testimonials and gleefully trash science and medicine without comment from skeptics (in other words, if you want it to be like Cure Zone), you may be an altie.
  • If you underwent conventional therapy for cancer and then underwent alternative medicine treatment but attribute your survival and present cancer-free condition to the alternative medicine and not the conventional therapy, you just might be an altie.
  • If you think it’s OK for (or any other such newsgroup) to be awash in advertising for snake oil quackery and other spam, you may be an altie.
  • If you frequently use the term “allopathic medicine” to refer to accepted evidence-based medicine (particularly if you either turn your nose up or sneer as you say it), you just might be an altie.
  • If you believe the trace of a dog’s milk molecule diluted 30C times has more healing power than 875 mg of amoxicillin, you might be an altie.
  • Speaking of amoxicillin, if you can believe that a coroner’s autopsy report that showed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, signs of chronic illness, and HIV encephalitis is more indicative of the cause of death being due to an acute allergic reaction to amoxicillin rather than to AIDS-related complications, you just might be an altie.
  • If you consider someone “doctor” because they have a diploma-mill ND, you might be an altie.
  • If you believe that alternative medicine practitioners are far more caring for their patients and far more moral (and therefore, by implication, less corruptible by money) than conventional doctors, you just might be an altie.
  • If you believe it’s perfectly logical that some alt-med clinic tucked away in a remote corner of some South American country (or on the outskirts of Tijuana) has been able to achieve amazing cure rates for many usually highly fatal cancers for years, all without publishing any data and without attracting the attention of any Western medical or science institutions or media whatsoever, then you must be an altie.
  • If seeing a company charge exhorbitant prices for herbs or other alternative medicine treatments doesn’t bother you in the least but you castigate pharmaceutical companies (which spend hundreds of millions of dollars and many years to get each new drug developed, tested, and approved) for price-gouging, you are very likely an altie.
  • If you dismiss every well-designed randomized clinical study that fails to show a benefit for an alternative medicine or therapy over a placebo control as either not proving that the therapy is ineffective or as having been manipulated by nefarious forces (conventional medicine, the pharmaceutical companies, the government, etc.) to produce a negative result, you may well be an altie.
  • If you call your backyard herb garden “the pharmacy”, you might be an altie.
  • If you think skeptics are close-minded and paranoid with no possible exception and they’re all out to get you, you might be an altie.
  • If you can go on and on for hours about how many people die from medical errors but become confused and defensive when someone mentions the victims of alternative medicine, you might be an altie.
  • If you get sicker and sicker while taking echinacea but tell everyone you’re feeling better, you might be an altie.
  • If you say your healer “is too busy people making people healthy” to conduct evidence-based trials but have never met a single person helped by them, you might be an altie.
  • If you excuse your healer and other alternative medicine practitioners from conducting evidence-based clinical trials of their treatments on the grounds that there is no money to support well-designed clinical trials testing alternative medicine even though the yearly budget for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is over $120 million, you just might be an altie.
  • If you believe that there really are herbal cures for diabetes and cancer, but the government forbids their sale because pharmaceutical companies need to make money from their “expensive drugs that don’t work,” there’s a good chance that you’re an altie.
  • If you’ve read Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You To Know About and consider it to be truthful and chock full of useful medical information that you can’t wait to try out, you are without a doubt an altie.
  • If you’ve actually forked out $499 for a lifetime membership to Kevin Trudeau’s website and consider it money well spent, you are without a doubt an altie. (And an easy mark, as well. Are you interested in some investments in land in Florida that I could hook you up with?)
  • If you believe that chelation is a valid treatment for autism, Alzheimer’s disease, coronary artery disease, or any medical condition other than heavy metal poisoning properly documented with appropriate symptoms and laboratory tests, you are well on the way to being an altie; that is, if you’re not one already.
  • If you think that vaccines do far more harm than good, you’re probably an altie.
  • If you believe that the Mohammed Al-Bayati is a credible authority on pathology and does good science, you just might be an altie.
  • If you think that HIV can be cured with herbal supplements that “boost the immune system,” you’re an altie.
  • If you can look at a study that doesn’t mention alternative medicine and that actually points out that its results should cast doubt on claims of “miracle cures,” and still conclude that the study shows that alternative medicine can cure “incurable” cancers, you’re definitely an altie.
  • Finally, if you are deeply offended by the above list, you just might be an altie!

Feel free to send me suggestions for more “You just might be an altie” items! Back when I posted the first iteration of this list, I probably got maybe 1/50th the traffic that I do now. With more eyeballs checking out this list, I’m sure that you, my readers, can help me continue to expand the list.

Come on, folks, don’t let me down. Get me more “You just might be an altie…” items. Give them to me in the comments! Let’s see how many “You might be an altie” items we can come up with!

Every few months, I’ll post a new and updated iteration of “What is an altie?” I hope to have at least two or three times the number above by the time the 2007 edition rolls around.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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