I recall a talk that was delivered to the Seattle Skeptics a couple years ago by Dr. Harriet Hall M.D, about naturopathy. She was, to put it mildly, very critical of the field. The details are a blur for me now, but I recall that she had very little to recommend it. With the intent of providing an alternative point of view, I invited Dr. Arriana Staruch N.D. Associate Dean of Academics in the School of Naturopathic Medicine, at Bastyr to give a presentation. I am grateful to Dr. Staruch for giving us a presentation entitled "Evidence Informed Practice in Naturopathic Medicine," which she delivered to the Seattle Skeptics in January of 2014. Dr. Staruch started with an impassioned attack on the medical establishment for such controversial practices as the use of prostate specific antigen screening as a marker for prostrate cancer, and the apparent over-extension of the value of breast mammograms as was in the news at the time. She identified the Principles of Naturopathic Medicine as follows:
1)First Do No Harm
2)Healing Power of Nature
3)Identify and treat the cause
4)Doctor as teacher
5)Treat the whole person
I really doubt (with the exception of point 2) that anyone object to these bullet points. Point 2, which Dr. Staruch annotated "Trust in the body's inherent wisdom to heal itself" is a good example of an "appeal to nature," sometimes referred to as the "naturalistic fallacy." The idea behind this is that somehow natural is inherently better than unnatural.
An aside: I recall once I was standing in line is a store and the customer in front of me was interrogating the cashier whether a bottle of Vitamin C tablets was derived from a "natural" source or if the tablets were "unnaturally synthesized." He ended up not buying, because the pills weren't "natural." Sadly, he perhaps didn't realize that Vitamin C is a defined chemical, and his question made as much sense as whether distilled water is pure. Here is the structure of Vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid). A further aside, I think it is likely that he was buying the vitamin supplement as either a treatment, or prevention of the common cold, in spite of the fact that there is precious little evidence that Vitamin C does anything to prevent or reduce the severity of colds.
Most of the rest of Dr. Staruch's talk consisted of specific studies that Naturopaths are engaged in. I don't recall any of the data being very persuasive, but that might just be my bias. Dr. Staruch walked into a buzz-saw of criticism from the Seattle Skeptics group--not all of it polite. I know it is hard sometimes for us impassioned skeptics to control ourselves, but it might be valuable to watch, or re-watch, the video I post below from Phil Plait about the need for temperance in our criticism. Or, as Plait expresses it "Don't Be a Dick." But, in defense of the audience, she was (and still is) really in an impossible position. Bastyr still teaches acupuncture and homeopathy, which have now widely been debunked as pseudoscience, and Bastyr still has a dispensary for homeopathic remedies which have long been shown to be worthless, and even dangerous. In Dr Staruch's defense, she did not emphasize homeopathy, and indicated that not all naturopaths endorse the practice, but as as an Academic Dean at Bastyr, it will be a difficult sell if she wishes to defend naturopathy as a scientific endeavor if anti-scientific practices are such an integral part of the field.
If you want to read excellent critiques of naturopathy I recommend this article by David Gorski and this article by Stephen Barrett on Quackwatch, or this article by Steven Novella. They pretty well summarize the pseudoscience.
All of the above is really old news. But what stimulated my thinking was new developments in the field. Britt Hermes, previously a Naturopathic Doctor, trained at Bastyr, has left the field in order to pursue a career in science. She has created a blog entitled the "Naturopathic Diaries, Confessions of a Former Naturopath." which recounts her conversion to what I consider is real scientific thinking. It must have been a difficult transition for her. Here is a link to her blog.
In conclusion, I have tried very hard to be generous and accommodating in my appraisal of naturopathy. Perhaps, but only perhaps, there are "elements" of the field that can be co-opted into standard medical practice, but until the field gets serious about exorcising the anti-scientific tendencies and integrating evidence-based medicine, I think it should be, avoided.
Below is Phil Plait's video.