Woo and health charities

Charities and non-profits operate under tough conditions. There is never enough funding, staff, or expertise to achieve perfection and the demands from clients, donors, and funders often force the charity to be more flexible than it might otherwise.

Because of these limitations, you can wind up with articles like “Energy-based therapies and cancer” from Macmillan Cancer Support, the UK’s leading cancer charity.

This article naturally falls under the “Complementary therapies” section of information about treating cancer. It’s designed (I’m assuming) to answer questions that patients may have when facing tough treatment decisions and a wealth of pseudoscience from everyone who’s second aunt twice removed once beat cancer with a mixture of beat juice.

The need to tread delicately is apparent throughout the site, as the tough stick approach of scientific skepticism would likely appear callous to those at their weakest. Therefore, the page talks in generalities, while slipping the occasional explicit  statement like, “These therapies have no anti-cancer effects.”

Nevertheless, the page does reinforce a lot of alt-med propaganda and links to reflexology, shiatsu, and healing touch groups across Britain.

It’s tough to know whether articles like this help or harm cancer patients. While providing information (that is likely requested frequently) with clear disclaimers is arguably positive, the non-confrontational nature of the articles may serve as a tacit endorsement from an otherwise reputable agency.

It may also be the case that the staff at the charity, and is especially the case in smaller charities, aren’t well versed in the scientific efficacy of various treatments, and the desire to do something to improve the lives of others is strong, especially in the kind of people who work for charities. Therefore, promotion of alternative treatments is seen as one way to help, especially when science-based medicine provides few options.

So in general I’m reticent to criticize charities too much for promoting pseudoscience and woo. In most cases, it’s likely harmless and may provide some placebo comfort for clients and it’s beyond the means of many groups to keep up with the latest studies.

Except in cases like Canadian Blood Service’s sloppy blood astrology program. That’s just patent nonsense.