Have you ever watched a TV show or movie, or finished a novel, and found yourself scratching your head at the end, wondering how that writer came up with such a lame idea? If the story was a medically or technology based one, there’s a good chance the writer was flirting with the edge of good science – not cutting-edge or state-of-the-art, but pseudo-science, fringe medicine, or, as some call it, deviant science – and fell off.
Now, I’m not talking about badly portrayed medicine. Television is full of that. I don’t think a week goes by without some character getting an injection into the neck or just above the elbow, neither of which is medically valid. Or what about those lead characters who get shot in the chest, just below the shoulder, and are back at work, busting the bad guys in a week, or less? Trust me, if you’re a writer, don’t use TV, or the movies, as your source of research. I’m sure you already know that.
I am talking about the actual science or medicine behind a story. Is it reality or something on the fringe of science? In medicine, that fringe is often called “alternative” medicine. Such practices as homeopathy and radionics (psionics or dowsing) fall into the “alternative” category, as does aromatherapy, the use of oils, much of herbal medicine, psychic healing, iridology, reflexology, cupping, and more. To date, these forms of therapy have not been scientifically proven and rely on anecdotal accounts of their benefits alone. Each subjective testimony is fraught with potential bias and error, and double-blind testing of such claims has typically failed to show any advantage. You never hear of the treatment failures, just the stories of those claiming positive results.
Please note that, in this post, I’m excluding “neo-traditional,” or ethno-medicine, which consists of traditional, culturally-based forms of treatment such as acupuncture. While these therapies cannot be explained scientifically, some of them have been shown to work and studies into why they work are on-going.
If you decide to include some form of “alternative” medicine in your story, don’t be surprised to find them explained in technical, scientific terms when you research them. Herbal medicine has renamed itself “naturopathy.” Radionics has its mysterious “black box” that looks like a scientific instrument. One of the trends in “alternative” medicine is to take on scientific trappings to make the modality seem legit and of proven benefit.
Mentioning a character’s use of one of these therapies as simply one more layer of her personality is unlikely to cause you problems. However, the risks of using “alternative” medicine in any significant way in a story are many. You must present it accurately, not just in scientific terms, but as its proponents present it. Even when you do so, you run the risk of alienating readers on both sides of that fence. Disbelieving readers might be turned off by its use, while advocates might get angry if it’s used negatively or presented as fraudulent.
And that gets to the crux of using fringe medicine, or science in general, in our writing. If it’s to be a major part of the story, you must make the idea believable. You, the writer, must get the reader to suspend his or her beliefs long enough to accept the premise. The further out on the fringe that therapy is, the harder that task becomes.